From the Saunderson Rare Books Room: First Book at U of T

On 23 April, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book library held a reception to unveil the University of Toronto Libraries’ fifteen millionth book, a 1481 copy of Cicero’s De Amicitia and De Senectute, printed by William Caxton. This also happens to be the oldest English-language book in Canada. On display alongside this exciting new acquisition were a few items that have been at the university just a little bit longer, namely, some of the first books ever belonging to the university.

In 1827, Bishop John Strachan secured a royal charter to establish the University of King’s College, intended to be a liberal arts college and training ground for Canadian-born ministers in the Church of England. Knowing that any school worth attending would need a respectable library, Bishop Strachan solicited donations from various organizations. One of these, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) donated £500 worth of books (approximately $91,000 CAD today) to start the library of this fledging colonial university. These books, selected by Strachan, were stamped with the Society’s inscription in gold on the front covers. Some 400 volumes were presented to the University of King’s College by the SPCK in 1828. When King’s College was secularized and became the University of Toronto, Bishop Strachan successfully lobbied to have this collection transferred to his newly founded Anglican institution, Trinity College. Today, this first library collection of what was to become the University of Toronto is preserved as the SPCK Collection in the John W. Graham Library.

A few years ago, the library was able to obtain the original invoices from the two booksellers who sold the SPCK the books for King’s College. Arguably, the first book listed on the earliest dated invoice, from a bookseller named John Cochran, could be considered the “first book” at the University of Toronto. The distinguished honour of being labelled the “first book” goes to a 1675 third edition of The Pattern of Catechistical Doctrine at Large or, A Learned and Pious Exposition of the Ten Commandments by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes. Andrewes was a major figure in the early Church of England, was Bishop of Chichester, Ely, and Winchester successively, and acted as the general editor of the King James Version of the Bible. This edition, published nearly 50 years after the author’s death, is revised based upon Andrewes’ alterations to his own copy of the work. With no noticeable imperfections, other than some wear-and-tear on the book’s spine, it is in remarkably good condition for its age, especially when one considers that the books in the SPCK Collection circulated in the Trinity College library’s general collection for well over a century.

Like all our rare books and special collection items, this volume is available for consultation any time in the John W. Graham Library. For further information, please inquire at the circulation desk or contact us at

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