18 December 2018


The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is one of the best-known libraries in the country, and it has cultivated an extremely dedicated group of donors and patrons. I sat down with outreach librarian John Shoesmith to discuss the importance of donor relations to the Fisher, and to reconsider what we mean by “fundraising.”

Interior of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. Source.
Thanks for meeting with me. Although many of our readers will be familiar with the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, before we begin, would you mind giving me a brief overview of what the Library’s mission is?

Essentially our library’s mission is to support the teaching and research of the University of Toronto as a whole, but also our mission is to support teaching and research worldwide.

How does fundraising fit into that picture, and what role does fundraising play at the Fisher?

It’s funny, we don’t normally use the word “fundraising.” The term we tend to use is “donor relations,” and whenever I do tours for students I always talk about the importance of donor relations. It’s not something that is ever really spoken about very much in the teaching curriculum, and yet it’s so critical to what we do here at the Fisher. Even outside of “fundraising,” the library itself is built on donations. We do have an acquisitions budget, but really the foundation of the library has been based on donations of books. We couldn’t have built this library without a huge donor base, having rabid book collectors decide to give us their collections. Some of our most important collections have been built primarily by our community. A great example is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. A Scarborough prof came off the elevator one day, had this list in his hand, and he said, “I have this list of books, would you be interested in these books?” It was a complete collection of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. That’s how a lot of our stuff has been built up over the years.

Foxe's Book of Martyrs, 1641. Source.
Reaching out to the younger demographic is so important. How do you do that?

One of the simplest thing we’ve done, and it sounds almost trite to say it, is that at one time our Friends of Fisher lectures would begin at 8pm. So a simple thing was just moving them from 8pm to 6pm, our argument being that at 8pm there’s not going to be many students hanging around campus, and they aren’t going to want to attend a lecture. Becoming a Friend of Fisher as a student is quite cheap, it’s $25. As a library we recognize the importance of our donors. We couldn’t do what we do without them. We try to pay tribute to them as much as possible, whether it’s publicly through events, or going out for lunches or dinners with them. We’re going through the process of hiring a Director for the Fisher, and they’re part of that process. The steering committee of the Friends of Fisher will meet the candidates, have a say in the process. And that’s important, because a big role for the Director is working closely with our donor community, so their voice is important.

For donors who are donating more than is average, or a particularly substantial donations, how does the Fisher recognize that support specifically? Or do they?

They do and they don’t. Earlier this year we purchased the William Caxton Cicero, which was a significant amount of money. It’s a great fundraising story, because a lot of the money had been generated by donations. This past week they had an event to honour the donors. It was very well-attended, there were probably fifty or so core donors of the Caxton. They generated this little piece for them, these little cards with the individual pages of the Caxton. It’s a very small gesture, but they loved it. One of the donors phoned and said, “I want to purchase twenty more of these.” So it’s small things like that. The Caxton was great, because they really felt like part of the acquisitions team, because it’s such an important purchase for us. That was such a great donor story for everyone involved, for us and for the donors themselves.

A gift of custom Caxton Cicero stationary given to donors who helped the Fisher purchase the Caxton. Photo courtesy of Samantha Summers.

When you get these incredible acquisitions with the help of donors, which is more rewarding: Seeing the text itself and interacting with it, or seeing how excited people are that they’ve contributed to this incredible text?

I think it’s both. We were chatting with Allan Gottlieb, who used to be the ambassador to the United States. Long time politician, was a book collector for a long time, mostly collecting fine bindings. He approached us probably two years ago wondering if we were interested in his bindings, and of course we were. He was very tied to them, he had a hard time getting rid of them. So what we did was create a prominent place [for them], and then after we received the donation we had a little tea for him and his family that was held in the mezzanine, and the books were out on display. Just a small thing to say, “Your donation is valued and is important to us. It has a prominent display. We recognize how important these books are to you. You can come any time and take a look at them. They’re not going anywhere.”

The Caxton is the best success story we’ve had in the last couple years or so. For us, it pointed to how excited the donor community was to be able to purchase this hugely important book. They had Alan Galey speak at the reception the other night, and they were very excited to see that Alan has already been incorporating it into his classes or into his own research. The Caxton is great simply because it’s the oldest English-language book now here in Canada. So that’s one part of it. But it’s not a momento piece, it’s actually for scholarship. To have it is one thing, but to have it as something that forms the core of someone’s research is so much more important for the Friends. They want to see this material being used.

An iPad contributes an interactive element to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library’s latest exhibit, De Monstris: An Exhibition of Monsters and the Wonders of Human Imagination, running September 17 to December 21. Photo courtesy of Samantha Summers.

Visit the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library website for visiting information, and check out these upcoming events: George Kiddell Lecture on the History of the Book and The Johanna and Leon Katz Memorial Lecture.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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