Treasures of the Library of Parliament

Article 10 / 15 , Vol 43 No 1 (Spring)

Treasures of the Library of Parliament

The Treasures of the Library of Parliament include items from its rare books, art and artefacts collections, as well as the architecture and fixtures of the Library building itself. This article, which highlights each of these four facets, was compiled from submissions written by the Library of Parliament’s Preservation Group for the Library’s Treasures web page.

Compiled by Lane Lamb, Janet Bennett, Josée Gagnon, and Dominique Parent

The Treasures of the Library of Parliament include items from its rare books, art and artefacts collections, as well as the architecture and fixtures of the Library building itself. With the exception of the Library building, the items in these collections are conserved to modern museum standards in the Library’s rare book room, where temperature, humidity, light levels and access are controlled. Some items have undergone conservation treatments to preserve them for future generations.

With the closure of Centre Block as part of the Long-Term Vision Plan for Canada’s Parliament, the preservation group at the Library was tasked with providing access to these compelling collections despite their move off of Parliament Hill. In response to this call to action, items from these collections are now being highlighted on the Library’s new Treasures of the Library webpage, on which a new treasure is posted each month. Each new treasure is added to the archive so that the site will eventually feature the full collection. To view the Treasures of the Library, visit

This article highlights each of these three facets of the Library’s treasures – art and artefacts, rare books and decorative arts and finishes in the Library building.

Art and Artefacts Collection

The Library of Parliament’s collection of art and artefacts consists of rare and unique items that chronicle the history of Canada, as well as the history of Parliament and of the Library. The collection also includes items of ceremonial or esthetic value and examples of decorative and visual arts, such as busts, statues, bas reliefs, paintings, heritage furniture and other decorative pieces. Architectural plans and drawings of the Library building are also preserved in the collection. In addition, the collection includes some textiles and clothing, such as the civilian dress uniform that belonged to Joseph de la Broquerie Taché, General Librarian from 1920 to 1932.

Arguably the most significant non-documentary artefact in the collection is the Confederation Inkstand.

Confederation Inkstand

The Confederation Inkstand was used at three important moments in Canadian history, as described on the sterling silver plaques attached to its side. They read:

“Encrier dont se sont servi [sic] les Promoteurs de la Confédération Canadienne pour signer les résolutions adoptées à la Conférence de Québec” [Translation: Inkstand used by the proponents of Confederation to sign the resolutions adopted at the Quebec Conference] (the 1864 conference presided over by Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché)

“Cet encrier fut prêté à M. Mackenzie King devant servir au président des États-Unis et au premier ministre de Grande-Bretagne, lors de la Conférence de Québec en 1943» [Translation: This inkstand was loaned to Mr. Mackenzie King, to be used by the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Great Britain at the 1943 Quebec Conference] (a secret meeting hosted by Prime Minister Mackenzie King in the city of Québec during the Second World War)

“On December 11, 1948, this Inkstand was used by the delegates of Canada and Newfoundland at the signing in Ottawa of the Terms of Union” (in the Senate chamber when the entry of Newfoundland into Confederation was formalized)

The fourth plaque commemorates the donation of the inkstand by Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché’s family: “To the Canadian Nation from Major R.A.C. Kane, VD, grandson of Sir Étienne P. Taché.”

The inkstand is made of ebonized (painted black) wood, a style that was popularized after Queen Victoria arranged to have much of her furniture painted black as a sign of mourning following the death of her husband, Albert, Prince Consort. Based on this, appraisals of the inkstand have set the manufacturing date to sometime between 1861 and 1864. The inkstand is topped by two identical cut-glass inkwells with brass collars sitting within circular recesses and includes two elongated recesses for quills and a single front drawer.

For more information about the history of this artifact, see the Library’s publication, The Confederation Inkstand.1 The Confederation Inkstand was recently at la Musée Royal 22e Régiment – La Citadelle de Québec as part of their special exhibit, Armistice 2018 – Memories of Wartime.

Rare books

The rare book collection of the Library of Parliament can trace its roots back to the establishment of the legislative assemblies of Lower Canada and Upper Canada in 1791. In 1840, the Act of Union united Upper and Lower Canada into the single Province of Canada. Then, in 1841, the two libraries merged to serve the newly created Legislative Assembly for the Province of Canada.

Until Ottawa was named the national capital, the Legislative Assembly travelled frequently, with its collection of books in tow. It moved from the city of Québec to Montréal to Toronto or Kingston. Each move would result in some damage to the collection and some lost volumes. However, the two most devastating losses to the collection were caused by fire. First in Montréal in 1849, when a mob set fire to Parliament in reaction to the Rebellion Losses Bill and only 200 books survived. Then, five years later, in Québec City, when an accidental fire destroyed a further part of the collection.

Following these fires, the collection was largely rebuilt by two individuals. The first was Georges-Barthélemi Faribault, Assistant Clerk of the Legislative Assembly from 1835 to 1855, who rebuilt the collection after the 1849 fire. The second was Alpheus Todd, who was Assistant Librarian in 1855 and later became the first Parliamentary Librarian, who was sent by Parliament following the fire in Quebec to London and Paris with a budget of £10,000 to purchase books and to acquire donations from those countries’ governments.

Les singularitez de la France antartique

Published in 1558, Les singularitez de la France antarctique is the oldest book to continually be in the Library’s collections. Given its immense historical value, this rare book written by the French Franciscan André Thevet is one of the Library of Parliament’s most valuable holdings.

What the author calls “France antarctique” is actually South America, specifically Brazil. The book describes explorations not only in this part of the world, but also in areas farther north, in what are today the United States and Canada. The author describes many Indigenous cultures, plants, exotic fruits and animals, such as toucans, coatis, tapirs, sloths, and monkeys. His accounts also provide detailed information about eastern Canada. The places the author explored, the events he witnessed and the landscapes he was able to behold during his travels are depicted in magnificent engravings with at times exaggerated details.

Les singularitez de la France antarctique also includes tales from sailors and explorers who travelled in the New World. In fact, the final chapters contain a collection of information on Canada gathered during the voyages of the explorer Jacques Cartier.

The Library of Parliament holds two copies of this book. The original, published in 1558, is kept in a custom-made acid-free box stored in the Rare Book Room. Due to its extremely fragile condition, the book must be handled with the utmost care. The second copy is a new edition published in 1878, with notes and commentary by the French historian Paul Gaffarel.

A digitized version of the book is available on Early Canadiana Online.2

Decorative Arts and Finishes of the Library of Parliament Building

The Main Library has been called the “Jewel in the Crown of Parliament Hill,” the “grand old lady,” the “wedding cake,” and “Canada’s most beautiful room.”

Soon after Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the permanent seat for the Parliament of Canada, the Department of Public Works invited architects to submit designs for the Parliament Buildings. Alpheus Todd, who was inspired by a study of modern library architecture undertaken during his book-buying trips to Europe, and by Edward Edwards’ Memoirs of Libraries, submitted his recommendations for the future design of the Library building. His suggestions included fireproofing elements, which would ultimately save the Library (and its collection) from disaster in the fire of 1916.

Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones won the competition and began construction of the Parliament Buildings in December 1859. The Library building construction lasted until 1876. Its interior finishes were completed by 1878.

The Library is an example of High Victorian Gothic Revival. This architectural style was popular in England late in the 19th century. Inspired by medieval architecture, it is eclectic and highly romantic, using multicoloured decoration and multiple textures. The ornate exterior, for example, shows off three types of sandstone. The circular wall is surrounded by 16 flying buttresses topped with pinnacles. A lantern dome roof caps the structure. Inside, the spacious reading room rises to an impressive 40-m domed ceiling – the first of its kind in Canada. Its walls are surrounded by richly sculpted white pine panels. The overall impression is reminiscent of a medieval chapter house.

The Library of Parliament is the only section of the original Parliament Buildings to survive the fire of 1916. However, in 1952, an electrical fire in the domed ceiling badly damaged the Library’s interior. The Library was closed for nearly four years for restoration. The wood panelling was carefully dismantled, then sent to Montréal for cleaning and fireproofing. A replica of the cherry, oak and walnut parquet floor was installed.

By the late 1990s, the Library had lost some of its original lustre and function as a reading room. The once multicoloured ironwork was now a uniform black and the original light-filtering glass floors of the galleries had been removed. The interior was now a cluttered open office space. After careful planning, the Library closed again between 2002 and 2006. The work restored the Library to its original Victorian splendor and upgraded the infrastructure to meet modern standards.

The Library Dome

Soaring over 40 metres above the floor, the dome is one of the most arresting features of the Main Library.

At the core of the dome’s design is its iron frame, a prefabricated structure that was ordered from England. It consisted of 32 iron ribs with a plaster infill. The circular space that its diameter encompasses was a span unprecedented in Canada when the Library opened in 1876. The dome was completely rebuilt using the original iron frame and moulded plaster following the fire of 1952. The rebuilt dome was crowned with a replica of the original lantern – the raised structure with its chrysanthemum-like pattern that sits atop the dome, overarching the immense, open space.

The dome spans the Library’s reading room. Supporting it structurally are 16 exterior flying buttresses which counteract the lateral thrust of the dome upon the walls. Inside, pairs of diagonal ribs, which fan out from marble columns to create a patterned web around the upper portion of the dome, provide further reinforcement.

The Library dome was once again renovated as part of a full restoration of the Library from 2002 to 2006. The gold leaf, which caps the dome’s lantern, was returned to its original shine, while the ribs radiating from it were painted a hue of blue characteristic of Victorian times, bringing it back to its distinctive appearance of 1876.

Audubon’s Birds of America

Of course, no talk about the Library of Parliament`s Treasures would be complete without mention of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America – an item that fits the collection criteria for both the art and artefacts and the rare book collections.

Created by one of the world’s foremost naturalists, the paintings of John James Audubon depict the wilds of North America and the creatures inhabiting it.

Audubon was born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1785 and sent to France as a young boy. It was here where he developed his love of nature and an aptitude for drawing birds. When he reached the age of 18, his father sent him to America to avoid conscription into Napoleon’s war and to enter into business.

In the 1820s, Audubon began travelling the United States and Canada to capture the likenesses of bird species from across the continent. Audubon’s passion for the portraiture of birds allowed him to combine his interests and skills in art and science. He created 435 paintings of over 450 species of birds, each life-sized, from the smallest hummingbird to the grandest flamingo. His collection, The Birds of America, which reproduced these paintings as colour plates, was originally sold through subscription.

To produce the plates for The Birds of America, Audubon sent his original paintings to Europe, to the engraver and printer Havell, who produced the images through copperplate etching and hand-applied watercolour. The collection is now commonly known as the “double elephant folio” edition. This moniker is a direct reference to the impressive size of the paper on which the plates were produced, measuring about 100 cm tall by 70 cm wide. The complete run of plates was sent to subscribers in 87 sets of 5 plates each.

The Birds of America holds a special place in the Library of Parliament’s collection. The current set is the Library’s third exemplar. The Legislative Council of Canada and the Legislative Library acquired the first two as complete sets from Audubon in 1842. These two sets were lost to fire when Parliament was burned by protesters in Montréal in 1849. The present copy was acquired in 1857 after the Library of Parliament approached Audubon’s family for a replacement set.

At the time of its purchase by the Library, The Birds of America was the premier volume on ornithology in North American and represented a topic of great interest to Parliament at the time – that of natural history. Today, Audubon’s The Birds of America contains representations of several species of birds that have since become extinct. The Library’s copy also contains some unique features such as composite plates, in which Audubon added additional details, and some notes and sketches in the margins that Audubon may have inserted himself.

The Library’s copy of The Birds of America is also an excellent example of an item in the collection that has received treatment for preservation. Originally housed in four enormous volumes, the Library’s copy of the The Birds of America suffered wear and tear from years of use. The Library partnered with the Canadian Conservation Institute in the 1980s and 90s to preserve the condition of the plates. The Institute rebound the plates in 17 smaller volumes made specifically to ensure the long-term preservation of the work. Bleeder pages interleaved each plate to prevent bleed-through of colour from one plate to another. Special inserts were also placed along the spine to reduce pressure on the bound edge of each plate.

To learn more about the Library’s Treasures, visit the Treasures of the Library3 page.