Rare finds, with links to William Shakespeare and Thomas Jefferson, at the B.C. legislature library

WatchInside the B.C. legislature is a library with rare finds, including works by William Shakespeare and Thomas Jefferson.

Inside a vault at the B.C. legislature’s library is a literary treasure trove.

The shelves hold some of the rarest books in the world.

On Friday, the director of the Legislative Library of British Columbia, Peter Gourlay, pulled the Second Folio Shakespeare from 1642 from a shelf.

It’s one of the rarest publications in the world, a book containing the original works of William Shakespeare. It was published by the playwright’s family and friends after his death in 1616.

“After he died his family and friends put together a first folio, then a second. Then a third and a fourth. Each time they would add more plays. Discover plays that he had written,” Gourlay said.

Without these folios, experts believe as many as half of Shakespeare’s works would be lost. An English book collector, Thomas Garside, moved to Victoria in the early 1900s. He donated the book to what was then the provincial library before moving back to England.

“A lot of other playwrights were using his works and changing them. So they made an effort to create the works as close as possible to the original. So these books are extremely valuable in understanding who Shakespeare was and what his plays actually were,” Gourlay said.

The folio contains the first published poem written by John Milton and the first authentic picture of Shakespeare. Other copies of the folio reside at Windsor Castle and the British Museum.

Other rare books include bibles and historical letters.  Gourlay carefully unfolded a letter,  yellowed with age, on Friday.

“So, this is signed by President Thomas Jefferson, American founder. It’s a pass to a sea captain, the Brig Washington of New York, the ship,” Gourlay said.

“Part of the reasons why we have such a unique rare collection is because of the history of the legislative library when it used to be the provincial library.”

Many of the books arrived at the turn of the 20th century, including what may be the most unique, and valuable. Some were a donation from the estate of H.R. McMillian, who built the B.C. forestry company McMillian-Bloedel.

“This is the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America by the American naturalist John James Audubon. He’s best known for The Birds of America,” Gourlay said.

Audubon’s books are the rarest, and most valuable, in the world.
Keeping a collection like this requires care. But it’s worth it, according to Reference and Preservation librarian Iona Reid.

“It is truly a privilege for myself, especially when I get a chance to research, all the different books and find out their history and the different province or how we ended up acquiring the books,” Reid said.

The library is only open to MLAs and their guests.

Mary GriffinMary Griffin

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