Hidden away in Irving K. Barber Library, the Rare Books and Special Collections section of the UBC Library has hundreds upon hundreds of materials so fancy that no one is even allowed to browse them without asking first — all items may be looked at online, and then requested to view in person.
With all of these materials hidden away on these shelves, what sorts of treasures does Rare Books and Special Collections have to offer?
Opium Trade Chest
I have this thing about history where I hate all the lectures related to the West and love learning anything about the non-West. Mostly, this just means that I visibly, and sometimes audibly, perk up when China is name-dropped in class.
There are real reasons for this educational quirk that have to do with me grappling with my Chinese-Canadian identity and the Eurocentrism of my education, but my comedic love for China has quickly become a meme about me that I’ve lost control over. So of course, when I walked into the Rare Books and Special Collections Library and saw that they had an exhibition about the Chinese-Canadian experience, I made a beeline for it.
To be honest, the exhibition didn’t quite meet my expectations, but there were a few objects on display that caught my attention. This opium trade chest was one of them.
In the last two years, I’ve been learning about the ways in which the Opium Wars set China’s course so that it would spend the next two centuries playing catch-up with Western powers. Honestly, it’s depressing and it’s always made me angry that the British thoroughly screwed over the Chinese to profit over addiction. Seeing this case, though, reminded me that there are stories and narratives about opium in China that were separate from the British, and those carried over to people who immigrated here.
I’m not really sure why this chest, with all its different components arranged so neatly, resonated with me. Something about how innocuous it looked, surrounded by Chinese board games and family photos, reminded me about personal stories and separating narratives from their entanglement with the West.
Shakespeare's Second Folio
UBC owns a copy of Shakespeare’s Second Folio, which, since I am deeply agnostic, is probably the oldest book that I will ever care about. This book is a collection of 36 plays, in the original Elizabethan English and without those handy side notes to tell you what the hell is going on.
Despite the fact that the spelling of words like “fweet” and “himfelfe” make me deeply uncomfortable, I read this section of Love’s Labour’s Lost and man, I miss English class.
(Full disclosure: the only reason I write for this paper is because I didn’t take any English classes this year, and I needed a way to keep writing so that my high school English teacher wouldn’t shame me.)
I honestly don’t know if the reason I like Shakespeare is partly just because I’m supposed to, but I do genuinely like reading Shakespeare. Reading the Second Folio takes my breath away. These are stories that have stood the test of time for centuries, and I haven’t even been alive for two decades yet. There’s something amazing about that.
First edition Harry Potter, signed by the cast
Apparently, Vancouver has a “special connection” to Harry Potter, since a Vancouver bookstore was the first place in all of Canada to carry Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
All I care about is the fact that I have now touched Emma Watson because I spent fifteen minutes paging through a copy of the Philosopher’s Stone that was signed by the movie’s cast members.
I can’t remember when I started reading Harry Potter, although I do know that my number one boast used to be that I read all seven books before third grade. My copies at home have been paged through a million times, and the Half-Blood Prince even has a bloodstain from that time I got a nosebleed while hunched over, reading.
In the library, I have to use a book support to page through the Philosopher’s Stone, which means that my head is tilted at an awkward angle. I’ll probably have a neck cramp tomorrow but it doesn’t matter because the story pulls me in the same way it always does. I forget about my midterms, that article I have to write for news, my latest breakup, and I just read.
I remember what it’s like to love something so deeply that just the shape of the words is familiar.