The McGill University Napoleon Collection was created in the 1950s under the auspices of the then University Librarian, Richard Pennington. Beginning with a small donation of books and prints from the Canadian publisher Frederick Southam (1869-1946), the collection was developed with the advice of Paul Fleuriot de Langle, a curator of the Musée Marmottan in Paris and a specialist in Napoleon and the art of the Empire, and of the Parisian print dealer Paul Prouté. As well, book dealers in both France and England supplied contemporary publications, documents and monographs for the collection. Many of these came from important collections such as that of Carberry Tower Library that belonged to the Elphinstone family. By the early 1960s, the collection had come to comprise some 2000 separate prints, 2400 monographs and related materials.
While there are a number of Napoleon collections in North America , the McGill collection is distinguished by the number of pre-1850 imprints and its number of contemporary prints. Richard Pennington had a particular vision of what a Napoleon collection should be and explained in writing at least once what this was. [See: "Napoleon ... and the Student problem" The McGill News, 37 (Summer 1956), pp. 21, 40-41.] Both the pictorial richness of the collection and the depth of early printed material are Pennington's legacy to researchers and students of the Napoleonic era.
After Richard Pennington's retirement in 1965 the collection suffered a mixed fate. There was a continued interest in the pictorial material and additions were made regularly into the 1970s, but interest in the monographs and other printed material languished. This lack of interest in the printed materials led to a division of this part of the collection in 1977. One section was determined to be not rare book material and was to be integrated into the main circulating collection held in the humanities library. This section amounted to something between 1800 and 2000 volumes. The criteria used in making this division have never been clear; material that was clearly rare book material was designated for inclusion in the circulating collection.
During the 1980s both parts of the printed collection lingered in a bibliographic limbo. Only a few items from the non-rare material were ever integrated into the main library collection, the rest being in "storage." The "rare" book collection did not excite much more enthusiasm either. However, in 1990, Professor Carol Solomon Kiefer of the Department of Art History discovered the Napoleon print collection. It provided the basis for a course in which the students worked on selected prints. The result was both an exhibition and a catalogue: What was thus by chance begun -- the Napoleon Collection of McGill University: selected prints and illustrated books. Montreal: [McGill University], 1991. At much the same time, 1992, the two sections of the monograph collection were physically reunited so that a decision could be made about the future of the collection as a whole.
In 1996 the newly appointed Curator-in-Chief of the Rare Books Division, Dr. Irena Murray undertook as one of her first projects a reassessment of the Rare Books Division’s Napoleon Print Collection. With grants totaling$17,000.00, two projects were undertaken. The first was a comparative analysis of the McGill Collection with other notable North American Napoleon Collections including the Napoleon Collection housed at Brown University .
The second project was the celebration of the bicentenary of Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1998. The exhibition curated by Ann Marie Holland demonstrated the depth of relevant holding of other McGill libraries including the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, the Islamic Studies Library and the Blacker-Wood Library of Biology with its copy of Description de l'Egypte; ou, Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Egypte pendant l'expédition de l'armée française, 1798-1801 . Paris : Imprimerie Impériale, 1809-1822. The exhibition itself was spread over five McGill libraries and resulted in a catalogue: Napoleon's expedition to Egypt : a bicentenary exhibition / Ann Marie Holland , curator. Montreal : Rare Books & Special Collections Division, McGill University Libraries, 1998.
The result of these projects was new life for the Napoleon Collection. The decision was made to use the new electronic technologies to provide new and dynamic access to what had been a largely under-explored and under-exploited collection. The Napoleon Collection through these new technologies would become available not only to students and researchers at McGill but to all who have access to the world-wide-web.
The senior staff of the Rare Books Division prepared an application for a standard research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). In 1997 and 1998, the Napoleon Project was among the projects that were approved but not funded. As with the earlier applications, the Project Team analysed the comments of the jury and we redrafted the proposal. Fortunately, in 1999 our revised application was funded by SSHRC with a three year grant totalling $97,000.00. Work began on the project in April 1999. The project has been under the direction of Dr. Richard Virr, Curator of Manuscripts, Rare Books and Special Collections, Chief Investigator, and David McKnight , Digital Collections Librarian, Co-Investigator. Dr. Irena Murray, Chief Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections, until August 2004, was a Collaborator in the project. Beginning in the same year, new acquisitions particularly in the areas of literature and cultural history have added a new depth to the collection.
Now as the Napoleon website is launched, the true riches of the Napoleon Collection are being revealed for the first time. Not only have the single prints been scanned and these images made available on the site, but some 10,000 prints in bound volumes have also been scanned and these images are also available. Detailed records for most of the monographs are available with particular attention being given to the pre-1820 imprints. Some 1000 map images and records are also available. However, the work of cataloguing and describing the contents of the collection is on-going and will continue for at least another two years before all the records are at an acceptable standard. The site is still very much "under construction." Nevertheless, it is now possible for researchers and devotees of the Emperor to begin to sample and use this wealth of material.