When it comes to rare books, usually grandiose, leather-bound volumes containing elegant, centuries-old script come to mind. The University of Calgary has many of those in its collections, but its rare books also include paperbacks, including first editions of titles from iconic publishers Harlequin and Penguin. A selection is now on display on the fifth floor of the Taylor Family Digital Library (TFDL).
“Some of our paperbacks date back to the 1930s and it’s fascinating to explore how cover designs and illustrations evolved over the years,” explains Allison Wagner, senior rare books and manuscripts adviser with Archives and Special Collections in Libraries and Cultural Resources (LCR). “It’s also interesting to see the progression of titles from specific publishers. For instance, many people don’t know that Harlequin published books on a variety of topics before it focused on the romance genre.”
As with any rare artifacts, moisture and temperature extremes can cause decay, so paperbacks are housed in climate-controlled storage. David Daley, LCR’s conservation adviser, works in a laboratory in the TFDL to preserve items in the university’s collections — everything from books and artwork to rugs.
“Paperback books and pulp magazines were often printed on paper of a quality that can become brittle over time,” says Daley. “This often leaves the paper fragile and prone to tears. We repair torn pages using thin Japanese paper and wheat starch paste, and we make book folders to hold together the very fragile copies.”
The paperback book exhibit includes a number of genres — romance, history, hobbies — and draws upon a variety of the university’s collections, including the Canadian Paperback Collection and the Bob Gibson Collection of Speculative Fiction.
The Gibson collection has tens of thousands of paperbacks, including pulp magazines. The paperback collection contains more than 700 pre-1960s paperback novels. Canadian paperbacks from this time are rare compared to their American counterparts because there were much smaller print runs. In particular, Harlequin novels have become scarce in Canada because of high demand from international collectors.
Notable books on display include:
The exhibit runs until May 1 in the Centre for Arts and Culture on the fifth floor of the TFDL. It is open to the public weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.