Melissa McAfee

It was the perfect get-acquainted project for a self-described peripatetic rare book librarian new to Canada this year. Not only did Melissa McAfee end up hunting down a first Canadian edition of a children’s classic about a very important bear, but she also retraced connections between Winnie-the-Pooh and a graduate of the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), which is marking its 150th anniversary in 2012.

After all that, it made perfect sense that McAfee should donate the volume to U of G’s Library archives last month through Sandy Eliza McDaniel, her 15-year-old Bengal cat still living stateside.

When was the last time a cat gave anything, let alone a very important book, to the library?

Kathryn Harvey, head of archival and special collections, says, “Definitely not since I’ve been here, which is four years now. I think I can probably safely say that this is the first.”

“This” is a first Canadian edition of British writer A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. Complete with original illustrations by E.H. Shepard, the book was published by McClelland and Stewart in 1926. That was the same year that British and American editions introduced readers in those countries to the bear of very little brain.

Until McAfee tracked down the volume this fall, the library lacked any first edition of Pooh – “bizarre,” says Harvey, given Winnie’s Canadian and OVC provenance.

Those roots might be unknown even by many longtime fans of the children’s classic and its 1928 successor, The House at Pooh Corner. Certainly it was news to McAfee. She had read the Winnie tales as a youngster in the United States and read them in turn to her own children there.

But it was only after arriving in Guelph this year and investigating OVC history in her new job that she learned of the Canadian connection.

The original Winnie was a female black bear orphaned in 1911 in White River, Ont. The cub was purchased by Harry Colebourn, an OVC-trained veterinary surgeon.

Part of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps, he was on his way to Europe during the First World War. He named the bear Winnie for his hometown Winnipeg. The library display case contains a photo of Harry and Winnie taken in 1914 when the veterinary corps – and its ursine mascot – were stationed at England’s Salisbury Plain.

When he went to France, Colebourn left the bear with the London Zoo. There Winnie became a crowd favourite. Upon returning to England, Colebourn donated the bear to the zoo. Winnie died in 1934 at age 20.

According to a note in the display, “Two of Winnie’s greatest admirers were the writer A.A. Milne and his son Christopher. In his introduction to the first edition of Winnie-the-Pooh, Milne relates in part an occasion when his son was allowed to enter Winnie’s cage to feed her condensed milk from a spoon.”

Milne made his fictional bear male and golden-haired – but Winnie-the-Pooh is still partial to condensed milk as well as honey.

This fall, McAfee tracked down the Canadian edition at the Toronto International Book Fair. She donated the book to the library through her Bengal cat. Sandy still lives with McAfee’s partner, Paul Saenger, a curator at Chicago’s Newberry Library.

The donation had actually been Paul’s idea, says McAfee. “He’s fond of Sandy. He thought she wanted to do something to honour the important field of veterinary medicine and do something good for Canada, even if she couldn’t be here herself.”

Also in the display are copies of Pooh books borrowed from U of G members, including a Latin edition called Winnie Ille Pu. One volume is the edition McAfee read to her own children: Emily Stone, now studying ballet at the Alonzo King Line Ballet in San Francisco, and Eddie Stone, a high school student in Chicago.

The display also includes items from the C.A.V. Barker Museum of Veterinary Science in OVC, including a collection of horses’ teeth formerly used for teaching.

Those artifacts were supplied by Lisa Cox, a history PhD student working as a researcher with OVC. “Harry Colebourn was a bit of a surprise,” she says. “Like a lot of people, I had seen the history vignette of Winnie-the-Pooh, but it hadn’t occurred to me that Harry was a vet or an OVC grad.”

Referring to McAfee’s donation, she adds, “I’m very thrilled that she was able to acquire a Canadian first edition and highlight connections between the college and one of most important characters in literary history.”

Working with the OVC dean’s office, Cox is completing Milestones: 150 Years of the Ontario Veterinary College, a commemorative volume to be published in early 2013.

McAfee arrived at U of G in June, following several decades spent preserving materials at university libraries in several U.S. locations, including New York, Indiana, Chicago and Washington. She also spent five years at American University in Cairo. Earlier, she studied classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and library science at Columbia University in New York.

She first encountered U of G early in her career. As curator of a George Bernard Shaw collection at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, McAfee had made annual visits to the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Colgate had hoped then to acquire an important Shaw collection. But Guelph won the materials – now part of the L.W. Conolly Theatre Archives, the largest theatre collection in Canada.

While visiting Quebec’s Gaspé region in 2011, McAfee spotted a Guelph job advertisement for a special collections librarian. When bad weather delayed her flight home, she thought, “Wouldn’t it be neat to apply for a job in Canada being in Canada?”

Since arriving this past summer, she’s been absorbing U of G’s rare book collection – focusing on theatre, veterinary science, Scottish studies, literature, cookbooks, and agricultural and rural history – and Canadiana generally.

Now McAfee is keen to share what she’s learning with students, faculty and staff. A self-described “interloper,” she says, “I like learning about different things and making them available to others.”

At Guelph, she hopes to interest instructors in designing course assignments using more primary resource materials. Recently, PhD student Carrie Herzog used the culinary collection – more than 13,000 volumes – for her own research and assigned students in her “Cultural Aspects of Food” course to look at the cultural significance of cookbooks.

Attracting more users and providing more collection space are key goals of a $9-million project planned by the library as part of U of G’s BetterPlanet fundraising campaign. Harvey says organizers hope to expand the archives to occupy about two-thirds of the McLaughlin basement, including providing more room for storage, meetings, study space and exhibitions.