I get to time travel every day

The Rev. Dr. Pearce Carefoote holds two old books.
The Rev. Dr. Pearce Carefoote holds a 1549 Book of Common Prayer, left, and a 1539 Great Bible authorized by Henry VIII, at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto
 on May 1, 2017

The Rev. Dr. Pearce Carefoote is the interim head of rare books and special collections at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

We are the largest rare book library in Canada. The department of special collections at the University of Toronto has been around since 1955; we have been in our present location – the south tower of Robarts Library – since 1973. Our collections range in age from 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablets through Egyptian papyrus from the time of Christ, medieval manuscripts, early printed books and modern Canadian literature. We have large collections in the history of science and medicine, Scripture, philosophy, theology, English and European literature, history and Canadiana, as well as the archives of Canadian authors like Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen.

I am responsible for the medieval and historic manuscripts, the early printed books and, for the last seven years, historic Canadiana as well. That means I work with antiquarian book dealers from around the world who have items for sale; I examine them and look to see if they will fit into our current collections. I also work with donors who have books from those periods or subject areas, to add their books and manuscripts to our holdings. I catalogue these items as they arrive according to rare book standards and assist with reference services. I also do a great deal of teaching at the library. I teach my own full-credit course entitled “Rare Books and Manuscripts” for second-year master’s students from the Faculty of Information, as well as about 30 seminars annually to professors who want sessions taught on topics such as “the book in the Reformation” or “the making of medieval books”, for example. As interim head, I am also involved in the administration of our department, its logistics and finances.

There are two very big projects with which I am presently involved. I am the curator of our current exhibition, “Struggle and Story: Canada in Print,” which traces the history of the nation in broad strokes, from the time of the first European encounters with Indigenous peoples through to Canada’s centennial year in 1967, but specifically through an examination of the print legacy that has been left behind. I’ve written an illustrated catalogue to accompany the exhibition and assist with the instruction and informational tours associated with it. That exhibition runs through the summer until just after Labour Day.

After that, I will curate our exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and that is taking up a great deal of my time at the moment. The exhibition is entitled “Flickering of the Flame: Print and the Reformation” and will open on Sept. 25, running until Christmas. It shouldn’t be surprising that the special collections department of a university that is 190 years old, with deep religious roots, would house important legacy collections that document the era before, during and immediately after the Reformation. Knowing that we wanted to mark this important anniversary, we started acquiring more materials from around the world, but especially in Europe and the United States, that filled in the gaps for us. So, for example, in the last few years we have purchased pre-Reformation vernacular devotional manuscripts and even an indulgence from Spain. We also have very rare and important early pamphlets and polemical caricatures by Martin Luther spanning the years 1519 to 1545, both in Latin and German, with their fine woodcuts from the workshop of Lucas Cranach. Because we want to tell the story of the Reformation as it spread across Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, we have purchased rare copies of the 1549 and 1559 Book of Common Prayer, for example, to add to our already strong collections of BCPs. We have also acquired rare Recusant materials to show the ways in which English Catholics, for example, responded to the Reformation in England. Other materials, donated and bought, flesh out the movement as it reached deeper into the continent, Scotland, Ireland and even, by extension, into North America.

One of the side benefits of all this activity is that it has deepened relationships with dealers around the world. There are very few feelings of excitement, at least for someone like me, like going into an antiquarian dealer’s shop in Paris or Vienna, being made welcome, turning the pages of these books and having a dealer trust you enough to say, “We’ll send it on; I think you need it for your exhibition” – and knowing you have the support of the library administration back home to do it!

I think this exhibition reinforced what I already knew at a basic level: that when Christians stop listening to each other; when they allow pride to trump the Gospel, they sow the seeds of dissension. While researching and putting this exhibition together over the last six years, I’ve come to the realization that this wasn’t just a matter of Catholics versus Protestants. There was a lot of politics going on in the background, men and women quite willing to take advantage of the fault lines that existed within Christianity to press their own advantage at the expense of the church’s unity. That has reminded me that Christians are still susceptible to being played by those whose political agendas are more important than their faith, even by those politicians who profess to be Christians.

Most importantly, mounting this exhibition has reminded me that there are elements of truth and error to be found on both sides (if we can speak of “both” – it was in fact “multiple” sides). There is much, for example, that Protestant churches can learn from the Catholic spiritual and mystical traditional and its emphasis on the transcendental, and much that Catholics can learn from the continued Protestant emphasis on the fundamental importance of Scripture. If we know our history and how we got to where we are today, which this exhibition attempts to show, maybe there is still hope for unity in the future, though I doubt ever uniformity.

The best thing about my job is actually twofold: it’s working with these beautiful, ancient texts – with the annotations of their previous owners in the margins of their books, struggling to make sense of what they were reading – and then sharing their story with the current generation of readers and visitors. I get to time travel every day, and take people along with me for the ride.

Five years from now I’ll probably be retired from the library and, I hope, free to do more pastoral or educational ministry in the church.

My favourite passage of Scripture is Romans 8:38-39. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It speaks to my own faith journey. When I felt that I did not belong, whether in the church or in my family or among my classmates, I knew that I always belonged to him. The passage has always kept me grounded and hopeful. I belong to Christ, his love is unconditional, and despite my own failings, he keeps bringing me back to him. No power can take that away from me.


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