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Category Archive: History

Beyond the Pale

A librarian recalls the War of 1812’s invasion of York, and US soldiers’ looting of the first-ever Toronto Library
Elmsley HouseToronto Public LibraryOriginally built in 1798, Elmsley House served as Upper Canada’s Government House from 1815 to 1841. (Photograph of photo-mechanical reproduction of a drawing by Jane Harris.)

Throughout human history, libraries have been targeted in seemingly personal attacks by invading forces. The immense Library of Alexandria was burned in 48 BCE — whether by accident or on purpose is not entirely clear; the Japanese army destroyed many Chinese university libraries during WWII; the Khmer Rouge burned most of the National Library of Cambodia in the 1970s; and Iraq lost huge portions of its national archives during the 2003 war, perpetrator unclear.

The invasion of York during the War of 1812 contained a touch of “comic opera” quality, as historian and former University of Toronto professor George Glazebrook called it in his 1971 book, The Story of Toronto, that was especially evident in the looting of the first-ever Toronto Library. As a long-time librarian, I often think that libraries are special; this part of the war’s history suggests that they may indeed be considered sacrosanct in the conduct of warfare.

The fifteen-ship American fleet first appeared in the York harbour on April 27, 1813. According to Glazebrook, York was “defended by a few obsolete cannons and 300 regulars, with the shaky support of an equal number of inexperienced militia against an invading army of 1,700 supported by powerful guns on a ship that moved at will.” Despite the weak defensive line, Canadian and British casualties in the invasion were less than half those of the Americans.  (more…)

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