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UBC Library: Home to rare books, found nowhere else — thanks to UBC donors

The Puban Collection — a rare and one of a kind book collection from China — was acquired by UBC Library in 1959 with support from donors.

The Puban Collection, one of UBC Library’s collections of rare books, was gathered by Chinese physician Junshi Yao during the 1940s and 1950s. It includes a total of 45,000 volumes which covers a vast range of subjects in Chinese studies. Today, it is still one of the primary resources for Chinese studies in North America. The collection includes a number of volumes not found anywhere else, and attracts scholars from around the world seeking to understand more about Chinese history, art, and literature.

The collection includes 250 works in classical philology which relates to the study of literary exposition, phonology and etymology or shuo-wen. Local history figures prominently, with 56 district gazetteers of the Kwangtung Province as well as records of some 50 famous mountains throughout China. The philosophy section contains information on the arts, archaeology, inked rubbings, and seal impressions. The encyclopedia section contains 27 multi-volume sets, most of which are rare editions kept in excellent or good condition, including one 205-volume set of a Sung work in manuscript. The largest section is literature, which contains over 1500 titles with many fine prints and multicolour editions of the Ming and Ch’ing periods. The individual literary collections consist of over 1,400 titles.

In the mid-1950s, Junshi Yao decided to sell the Puban Collection, then located in Macao, to ensure its safety. To develop or acquire a collection of Asian works was one of the priorities of the UBC Library, and a collection like Puban was exactly what the library was looking for—it was extremely rare, and the amount of materials included would establish UBC as a leading institution in North America for resources on Asia.

In September 1956, the Friends of the Library of the University of British Columbia was founded to develop UBC’s library resources. Dr. Walter C. Koerner, chairman of the group, fully supported the purchase of the collection.

“The Macao collection is very important. Therefore I am glad that Professor Ho will go to Hong Kong. Don’t let it go!” – Dr. Walter C. Koerner, written in a letter to Neal Harlow, University Librarian, November 5th, 1958.

The Puban Collection arrived at UBC Library at the end of February 1959 in 112 cases of 400 volumes each.

Given the tremendous historical value of the collection, it has become a priority for UBC Library to ensure the long-term preservation of the various pieces—both in terms of care of the original items and digitizing them for posterity, which will allow the library to increase access to the collection. In 2018, UBC received donations from two foundations to employ a Chinese Rare Books Project Manager to work exclusively with the collection and assess the needs of the collection, identify the top priorities for preservation, and enrich the catalogue records of these original works not found anywhere else in the world. The work will continue on this project for several years in order to address the full 45,000 volumes—ensuring these priceless works are available for generations to come.