U of T Neighbourhood: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library

I have a bit of extra time today so at lunchtime I make a quick trip out to visit another library. A friend of mine  told me about a library within the city that I needed to see.

I leave the house already ravenously hungry. I probably should’ve eaten before I left but it was too late. There would be no long wanderings searching for the perfect interesting food. Instead I get off the subway a couple of stops early, at Yonge station.

This area is on the edge of Yorkville, a neighbourhood that hosts a Ferrari and Maserati dealership along with the Four Seasons Hotel. If you’re looking to go celebrity spotting, this is one of the places you might want to check out. But if you’re looking for an inexpensive and quick meal, it can be a little trickier. I head down to the Cumberland Terrace Mall.

This mall is a bit of an anachronism. It’s connected to the Holt Renfrew Centre – a mall named after its flagship luxury department store and filled with other high end stores. But before you get to that hotbed of luxury you have to pass through Cumberland Terrace.

It’s not doing so great today – and to be frank, it never really was – but there are lots more closed shops today. It looks, feels, and even smells like you’ve travelled back to 1985. The decor hasn’t been touched since then.


In there is a food court with a few inexpensive options. I came looking for the Korean restaurant which has inexpensive and decent combos.


But before I get there, another restaurant catches my eye. This one offers Sri Lankan food. Ten years ago there was one Sri Lankan restaurant downtown and the few others there were were buried in the depths of the suburbs. Not today, though. You can get your Kottu Roti anywhere now it seems.


I go for a veggie thali. I’m excited to see that they even have brown rice. It looks pretty good.


Unfortunately, the food is really underseasoned and bland which is a shame because one of the things I love about Sri Lankan food are the big flavours and spicy heat. This has none of that. Even the papad are soft. It’s as if the cook just wasn’t into it and decided to phone it in today. Or perhaps they’re catering to a Canadian palate. That would make sense.

After that I head a couple stops west and head down St. George St. in to the University of Toronto Campus.


As you can see the day is a perfect autumn day. The weather is cool and damp and the leaves are looking beautiful and colourful. It won’t be long before they are all gone and the ground is covered in snow.

I finally arrive at my destination, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library which is in the Robarts Library building. This building is considered by some to be the ugliest building in the city. It’s an example of brutalist / futurist architecture. This style uses a lot of pre-cast concrete and today can look cold and imposing. I have a soft spot for it, though, and like its quirkiness. I even live in a brutalist highrise tower myself.

Photo by Dr.K. – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Rare Book Library is attached to the south end of the library. The public is allowed in. Once you go in, before you can get past the front door you must put all of your outerwear and backpacks/purses in a free locker. Once I get past the turnstile I realize that the building with possibly the ugliest exterior in the city has the most beautiful interior.


One look makes me think that perhaps I have not gone to a library in Toronto but have, instead, been transported to Hogwarts.

As I stand there in the middle of the space, a man is being interviewed for what appears to be a TV program or documentary so I can’t get much closer. And so I go to the second floor where an exhibit of rare books and art is set up.

Looking at these books, I’m more convinced than ever that I am actually at Hogwarts.


It turns out that I’m not actually at Hogwarts. The exhibit is actually De monstris: An Exhibition of Monsters and the Wonders of Human Imagination. There are some pretty amazing pieces there and it is fascinating to see books that are literally hundreds of years old.

I go back to the elevator and see that the fourth floor is labelled “Observation” and so I press that button to see what I can see. I’m not disappointed.


Wandering a bit more I find that most of the space is not accessible to the public – for good reason. There are some very rare pieces here that can’t afford to be damaged or stolen. Still, I’m thrilled to have been able to see what I was able to see.

And now you all know what my house would look like had I been the winner of that $1.6 Billion jackpot a few nights ago.


15 thoughts on “U of T Neighbourhood: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library

    1. It truly is. It makes me think of the ones I see posted every now and again on Facebook.

      Now that I think of it, though, it’s sort of like the library equivalent of decorative antique furniture. It looks gorgeous but you can’t really sit comfortably in it. This is a great library to look at but for somewhere to curl up with a nice book on a rainy day you’ll need to go somewhere else.

    1. Definitely – the food wasn’t that great there but there are some really good spots in the suburbs. Many of them are tiny restaurants – often with no tables, doing take-out only but the food is amazing.

  1. I was so exited to read your thoughts about Thomas Fisher. I took a history of medicine course when I was at U of T and we spent one class taking a tour of the library and getting to examine medieval and later medical texts. It’s one of the most gorgeous libraries I’ve ever seen.

    I’m not sure if you know this, since you didn’t mention it in your post, but Robarts isn’t just an ugly brutalist building—it’s an ugly brutalist building in the shape of the peacock. I actually don’t find it so ugly from other angles; when I lived in the Innis Residence (across St George and a little north) I got quite fond of it—from the back view, it looks like a 1970s-era cathedral of books. The peacock thing is ridiculous, though.

    1. Wow – that course sounds really cool and what a great field trip to have as part of it.

      I didn’t know that about Robarts. That’s a really interesting bit of information. Thanks for passing it on!

    1. Absolutely – just being near them was lovely. And above all that, I think just the knowledge that I was in a place with others who cared as much as I do about books was wonderful.

  2. Wow wow wow. The library is incredible. Those monsters do look like Harry Potter creatures, for sure lol. Were you allowed to check out books there? Were there comfy seating areas? Sorry the sri lankan food was tasteless! I think a lot of food court food is that way. 😛

    1. Yeah – this is more of a “visiting library”. Books are too rare to be checked out. And security is high enough that you can’t really even bring your own book in to, for example, sit in the one seating area. Bags, coats, and purses all get locked in lockers before you can enter the area. Of course with books that are hundreds of years old and other rarities all throughout the place I get that they can’t risk someone taking it away in their bag or, for that matter, spilling something they brought in on it.

      It was not particularly comfortable and *absolutely* silent. I have said before that libraries are like temples but this one really was like that. Really beautiful with a reverent silence throughout the space.

      And yeah – what did I expect from food court food, eh? Even the Korean food I normally get there is still only just OK – not great.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. I thought I had died and gone to heaven when I saw your inside photo of the library! And I kinda dig the outside of the library, ugly and lovely all at the same time.

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