Merril Collection at 50: Stories from the Spaced Out Library

November 10, 2020 | Nicole

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Raised letters appear in a wall of sheet metal from the front of the Merril reading room. Text reads "A Reference Collection of Speculative Fiction Founded in 1970 through a donation by Judith Merril"

UPDATE (August 16, 2021): It is with great sadness that I share the news that Lorna Toolis passed away on August 11, 2021. She was the Collection Head of the Merril Collection for 30 years and the impact she had on the Speculative Fiction community in Canada was profound. She is remembered as a voracious reader with an encyclopedic memory and a generous, kind heart. She touched and will be missed by so many. 


The year 2020 will go down in history for many reasons. It also happens to be a major milestone for Toronto Public Library's most far-out collection. In 1970, science-fiction author and editor Judith Merril donated 5,000 books to TPL to found the "Spaced Out Library."

Now known as the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy, it has grown to over 80,000 items, and is recognized as one of the world's premiere speculative fiction collections. It is housed at our Lillian H. Smith Branch.

To help mark the 50th anniversary of the Merril Collection, I asked Lorna Toolis (former Collection Head), Annette Mocek (Services Specialist) and Kimberly Hull (Librarian) to reflect on their favourite items and stories from the stacks. Together, they have 88.5 years of experience working with the collection!  


Do you remember when you first learned about the Spaced Out Library? Can you share any anecdotes about your first visit or first day/week of work?

Lorna: I was a member of ESFCAS, the Edmonton Science Fiction and Comic Arts Society. We all knew that Toronto had a science fiction library and visiting it was on everyone's to-do list. Then they advertised for a Collection Head.

After I got the job, TPL threw a meet-the-new-hire party. Everyone at the party kept telling me, "I really wanted your job." People in the sf [science fiction] community kept saying that too. It was a dream job and I knew how lucky I had been.

The reference stacks of the Merril Collection are shown. Books fill the shelves on both sides of an aisle. They are marked with archival flags.
A portion of the stacks (bookshelves) that hold items in the Merril Collection.


Annette: To be honest I hadn't known about Spaced Out Library until I saw the job posting, which looked like a dream come true. I'd passed by the Boys and Girls House while at the University of Toronto, but  I didn't know what it was. Spaced Out wasn't visible from the street. I wish I had known about it earlier! 

When I first started working at Spaced Out, Lorna showed me the collection and pointed out a row of boxes that lay around the edges of the room. There were over one hundred and twenty boxes full of books! Lorna explained that they were an enormous bequest from an important collector of science fiction, and that I'd be cataloguing them for the next several years!

I was immediately thrilled by the depth and breadth of the collection. My local library branch had only a small shelf of science fiction novels. I was delighted to see so many books by favourite authors such as Clifford Simak, and immediately started making ambitious reading lists for myself... but the collection is so vast that I knew I'd never get through more than a tiny fraction. Three decades later, this is still true!


Kimberly: I was working as a children's and teen librarian at Yorkville Library, when I first heard of the Merril Collection.

When I first started, I was so enthused that I had neglected to ask about the details of the tasks involved, and was dismayed to find out that the job was mostly cataloging books, which I had no experience doing. In the intervening time, I have come to enjoy cataloging very much, and still wake up in the morning and think "I get to catalogue books today!"

A woman with grey hair and a stripped shirt poses with an open book in front of bookshelves
Judith Merril poses in front of the collection in 1985. Courtesy Toronto Star Photograph Archive.


What is the strangest or most memorable patron request you ever received?

Lorna: On my first day of work, a patron ran in and demanded "that book you have on UFOs, with the chart so that people can distinguish between the ones with round lights and the ones with square lights." Other memorable questions included the Madonna of Lourdes as a UFO phenomenon, the possibility of pregnancy for vampires, Victorian era fiction involving carnivorous plants, transhumanism, etc. A recurring favourite question was the quest for H.P. Lovecraft's Necronomicon. Apocryphal books were always in demand. 

People tend not to remember the authors or titles of short stories. More patrons than I could count over the years wanted to know the title of the short story where someone travels back in time to hunt a dinosaur and kills a butterfly and everything changes. "The Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury was probably the most requested short story ever. 

Eight glass display cases are shown in the Merril Reading Room displaying books from the collection.
Panorama of the Merril Collection's reading room.


Annette: We were contacted by the Planetary society (founded by Carl Sagan) in the early 1990s and asked to compile artwork, fiction and non-fiction relating to Mars, which was stored on a CD-ROM disk as a sort of time capsule for space exploration. The disk, published as Visions of Mars, was originally carried about the Russian Space Agency's Mars 96 Mission. Unfortunately, the mission failed and the disk ended up in the Atlantic Ocean, but it was eventually issued as a DVD and it did get into space in 2007. 


Kimberly: I always come back to the PhD candidate from Austria who was writing his thesis on role-playing games and post-modern literary storytelling. He researched with us for most of the summer, and when he received his degree, he was also given an award for academic excellence, which used to be a gold medal awarded by the king, when Austria had a king. It is now in the form of a ring.

A portion of the stacks (bookshelves) that hold items in the Merril Collection.
Just a few of the thousands of books in the Merril Collection.


Do you have a favourite item from the collection? 

Lorna: Not a single item. I was pleased with the first edition of Dracula because the day after the Collection bought a copy, another sold at a London auction house for over double what we had paid. I was pleased with the strength of the R. A. Lafferty holdings, because Merril Collection collected Lafferty's books decades before the rest of the world realized Lafferty was cool. I was happy the Collection owned a copy of James Schmitz's A Nice Day for Screaming and Other Tales of the Hub when a patron told me dismissively that there was no such book, it was apocryphal. He spent the rest of his visit reading the Merril Collection's copy.

A bright yellow hardcover of a book with a thin red border. The title at top reads Dracula
Dracula by Bram Stoker, 1847-1912 Westminster: Archibald Constance and Company, 1897. First edition.


​Annette: I am very fond of the Cheap Street edition of Charles de Lint's Paperjack. All the Cheap Street books are exquisite but this is my favourite: one of only 133 letterpress copies, in a handmade clam-shell box lined with Japanese paper, and signed by de Lint and Judy J. King. It contains a short story from de Lint's Newford tales which was written in 1991 specifically for this very exclusive publisher. In 1995 we attended the Can-Con convention in Ottawa which coincided with the opening of Out Of This World, a joint exhibition with the National Library of Canada celebrating science fiction and fantasy, where I was thrilled to meet Mr de Lint and to see him performing Celtic folk music with his wife MaryAnn Harris, so this book has many happy associations for me.  

A book covered in Japanese paper alongside an open clamshell box lined with the same paper.
Paperjack by Charles De Lint. New Castle, Va.: Cheap Street, c1991.
Kimberly: It's so hard to choose just one! The surreal Codex Seraphinianus by Milanese designer and artist Luigi Serafini, is definitely one of them. Although modern, it's a rare book which appears to be an encyclopedia of an imaginary world which is both like and unlike our world, in the most unexpected way. Heavily illustrated with bizarre depictions of this strange world, the "text" is written in an undecipherable language, which Serafini has revealed is actually merely decorative markings.

Another would be a quirky little drawing that I was able to identify as being by Clark Ashton Smith, an American poet and novelist of the fantastic during the 1920s and '30s. He was a friend of H. P. Lovecraft and part of the circle that included other writers such as Robert E. Howard and later, Ray Bradbury. Smith dabbled in drawing and sculpture and enjoyed illustrating his own works.

Pencil drawing on paper of a figure with long, angular facial features and a tall headpiece that looks like a horned mammal
Untitled drawing by Clark Ashton Smith.


The Merril Collection has hosted so many prominent authors/editors/scholars in the world of Speculative Fiction. Have you ever been starstruck?  

Lorna: I counted myself amazingly fortunate. Over the years, I had lunch with Margaret Atwood and dinner with Gene Wolfe. Neil Gaiman was our guest three times, as was Cory Doctorow. John Scalzi was a huge hit with the audience and returned to speak several times by request. When Lois Bujold was our guest, her kids were having trouble with their grammar, and I gave her my personal copy of The Transitive Vampire. Robert Jordan was a guest and he was an absolute sweetheart.


Annette: The first famous author I met at the Spaced Out Library was Samuel R. Delany. I hadn't read all his works but was very impressed with his scholarship in postmodern literary criticism. Mr. Delany's talk was erudite and very well attended. Afterwards, my husband and I drove him to the airport, and I kept thinking "Samuel Delany is in our car!" I think I was too intimidated to be starstruck.

I was truly starstruck when Neil Gaiman came to Toronto to launch his novel Stardust. It was a huge event, and the program room was packed. Mr. Gaiman was exhausted after having done something like 20 events in 20 days, and he was grateful for a moment to sit and have a snack before the event. When he started his reading, he realized that he did not have a copy of the book to read from, so I ran up and gave him the copy I had just purchased. Mine was the first copy to be autographed that night, and I'll always treasure it.


Kimberly: I've always been impressed with Cory Doctorow when he visits; he is a very fine public speaker, really on top of current events and able to think on his feet like no other speaker I've seen. Cory addresses a crowd as if he is talking to one person.

John Scalzi is as funny and entertaining as his books, and is a very lively speaker, also very comfortable speaking in front of a crowd.

A close up of a display case from an exhibit in the Merril reading room. In the background you can see the Merril reference desk.
An display case for an exhibit in the Merril Collection's reading room.


Time for some speculation. What does the Merril Collection look like in another 50 years? 

Lorna: The world wide web will evolve further. In fifty years, a researcher will task their AI with finding materials relevant to their project and a reliable source for the materials. Her avatar will talk to TPL's AI and the Merril Collection sub-routine will download requested materials with a bitcoin authenticity guarantee.


Annette: I believe it will continue to be a comfortable, welcoming space for readers of speculative fiction and a place for the community to congregate.  I hope that one day there will be plenty of compact shelving to protect our rarest treasures in their original formats, and that it will continue to showcase the best examples of this genre for many years to come. 


Kimberly: The Merril Collection will be the undisputed leader world leader of speculative fiction collections; a magnet for both international researchers and local aficionados of the speculative genres. The breadth and depth of the Collection and the expertise of the staff will be unrivalled by other institutions.

Judith Merril in black and white photo siting cross-legged on chair holding up science fiction illustration
Science fiction writer Judith Merril in the Spaced-Out Library, then located at 566 Palmerston Ave., 1975. Courtesy Toronto Star Photograph Archive.