Special Collections in the Arts

Ornate tiny book case opened to reveal a smaller gilded case with book as small as dime

A collection of primary sources and rare items from performing arts (theatre, music, dance, film) and visual arts. It contains tens of thousands of unique and historic materials, spanning early printed books from the 15th century to modern fine art pressings.

Also located on the 5th floor of Toronto Reference Library, the Arts Department offers its own collections of books, scores, plays and other resources for in-depth research.

Collection details & highlights

There are three main collection areas. Notable holdings and finding aids are available by expanding the options below.

Performing arts

Rare items related to music, theatre, dance, film and other performing arts. You'll find both Canadian and international material in these collections.

Canadian sheet music

One of the top historical collections of Canadian sheet music. Materials are available on microfiche and in original printed form.

  • 3,000+ parlour songs and piano pieces from 1805 to 1960, most from the turn of the century
  • Access by title, composer, date of publication, place of publication, publisher, subject and cover
  • Selection of digitized sheet music

Archival collections

Over 100 collections of manuscripts and other archival items grouped by individuals or organizations. Highlights include:

  • The Crest Theatre Collection, tracing the history of the notable Toronto theatre from 1953 to 1966
  • The Boris Volkoff Collection, documenting Volkoff's 45 year career in Canada and his important contribution to Canadian ballet
  • Taverner Collection, about the Taverner theatre company which played in eastern Canada and the United States in the 1880s and 1890s

More on archival collections

Theatre designs

Designs for theatre, dance, opera, musical theatre, film and TV. Our collection of stage designs is the largest of its kind in any Canadian public library. The collection also includes costume designs and working drawings.

  • 4,500+ stage designs for theatre, dance and opera companies in festival and regional theatres across Canada
  • Works by award-winning designers including Michael Levine, Mary Kerr, Ken Macdonald, Astrid Janson, Susan Benson
  • Access by production, designer, and company facsimile cards for viewing in the Arts Department
  • A selection of digitized set designs and digitized costume designs

More on theatre designs

Photographs, prints & engravings

  • 6,000+ photos, film stills of performing arts productions, buildings and personalities (like Mary Pickford). Mainly Canadian, American and British.
  • 17th, 18th and 19th century engravings of actors, including Edmund Kean being granted honourary status by the Huron-Wendat in 1826
  • A portfolio by Alessandro Sanquirico of engraved set designs for Italian operas and ballets between 1826 and 1832
  • 120 Japanese woodblock prints illustrating Kabuki and Noh theatre productions

Posters, playbills & programs

  • 10,000+ items publicizing Canadian performing arts productions and events and visual arts exhibitions
  • Works by Canadian graphic artists Theo Dimson, Heather Cooper, Scott McKowen, Jack Shadbolt and Montreal poster artist Vittorio
  • A selection of non-Canadian posters, including work by the French artist Cassandre
  • Pre-1940 music, theatre, opera and dance programs, with a Canadian emphasis

Visual arts

Rare and valuable books, limited editions and illustrated periodicals from the visual arts. The material is international in scope, and includes Canadian items.

All of the items are searchable on TPL's catalogue. Tip: check the box under the search bar for Special Collections in the Arts items.

Private press & fine printing

Books by small presses or artists that have high intrinsic artist value.

  • 2,400+ items on the art and history of the book, including 15 incunabula (books printed before 1501)
  • Many items from Canadian, British and American private presses
  • Nearly 200 examples of fine printing from Czechoslovakia, published from the early 1900s to late 1940s
  • Artists' books such as miniatures, tunnel and accordion books — includes examples from the Canadian Bookbinders' and Book Artists' Guild

Trade catalogues

Publications advertising goods sold by businesses — they tend to be many pages long.

  • 1,200+ illustrated Canadian trade catalogues from the 19th and early 20th centuries (we've digitized several Eaton's catalogues)
  • 100+ non-Canadian trade catalogues
  • Documents that trace the history of consumer taste and the development of industrial design
  • Primary material for illustrators and set and costume designers reconstructing period decor and costume
  • Reference for collectors

Catalogues raisonnés

Catalogues showing the complete works of important artists. The publications include detailed notes and are often used by gallerists and collectors to verify the authenticity of a given artwork.

TD Audubon Collection

This collection contains a single work: John James Audubon's Birds of America (produced 1826 to 1838). It is a four volume, double-elephant folio set of 435 hand-coloured, engraved prints. It was an ambitious effort to capture all the birds in North America in natural, life-sized poses in their normal habitat. Only 120 copies are known to exist. To learn more, view our virtual exhibit.

In-person access

The prints are now separated and stored in large boxes in a secured space. You're welcome to view any of the prints. Please email or phone us in advance to let us know which print you would like to see when you visit.

Online access

Browse all prints online.

History of collection

Our copy of Birds of America was purchased in 1903 by Chief Librarian James Bain from the estate of Toronto mayor George William Allan. The $1,900 cost was paid over five years. Allan was the only one in Canada to have purchased the rare work. Legend has it that Allan bought the set directly from Audubon.

Volumes became increasingly fragile over time. In the early 1980s, they were withdrawn from public use. To make sure they could continue to be available, an appeal was launched to finance conservation of the prints. The public responded generously to a fundraising campaign and conservation work was completed in 1990.

In 1996, Canada Trust donated $1.2 million to ensure that TPL's most valuable work would remain in our possession. Since Canada Trust's amalgamation with TD Bank in 2001, the collection is now known as the TD Audubon Collection.

Vintage cover of Eaton's trade catalogue

Digitized items

Some items in this collection are available online on our Digital Archive.

View digitized items

Plan your visit

All are welcome to use this collection.

Using the collection

To access items, you will need to fill out a brief form and show one piece of identification or your library card when you arrive. To view artwork or a large number of items, please contact us before your visit.

Physical items are non-circulating. You can view them in the Marilyn & Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre.


Toronto Reference Library (789 Yonge Street). 5th floor. Inside the Marilyn & Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre.


9:00 am to 8:30 pm
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9:00 am to 5:00 pm
1:30 pm to 5:00 pm

Food & drinks

To protect items, we keep our space free of any food or drinks (including water).

Class or group visits

Contact us to schedule talks and tours for groups and classes. We are happy to prepare talks on a topic of interest to you.