The Chester D Cuthbert Collection: Reeling In The Years

Posted in Books, Chester D Cuthbert, Miscellaneous, Science Fiction, University-of-Alberta on October 5th 2007 by Randy Reichardt

.: I’ve been in Winnipeg since last Sunday (30 Sept 2007), assisting my University of Alberta Libraries colleague Dr Merrill Distad in the coordination and shipping to Edmonton of the library and personal archives of Winnipeg book collector and good friend, Mr Chester D Cuthbert. In the mid-1970s, when I was active in sf fandom and lived in Winnipeg, I made regular visits to Chester’s home on Saturdays, where the local group of sf fans would congregate on an almost-weekly basis to swap stories, discuss the latest novels and writing, report on conventions, and make plans for our various fanzines and upcoming trips to sf conventions. Chester, who turns 95 on 15 October 2007, welcomed us into his home, and would often share stories of the glory days of past decades in the world of sf fandom. In the 1950s and 1960s, other local fans had descended upon Chester’s house, and spent many a Friday evening until the wee hours doing the same as our local group, nicknamed Decadent Winnipeg Fandom (DWF), did in the mid-1970s.

As time went on, Chester continued to build and maintain a large collection of books covering sf, fantasy, general fiction, psychic phenomena, with special interest focused on writers such as Max Brand and A Merritt. Reams of correspondence covering decades accumulated in his files, as well as hundreds of fanzines.

I moved to Edmonton in December 1978, and have worked at the University of Alberta Libraries (UAL) since September 1983. In the late 1990s, the UAL began to solicit donations in science fiction and fantasy, and in 1998, I brought Chester’s collection to the attention of the aforemention Dr Distad, who subsequently paid Chester a visit in Winnipeg, and made him an offer to consider donating the collection to us. He passed on our offer, but always insisted that when the time came, he wanted his collection kept intact if possible, and made accessible to others who might be interested in its extensive subject coverage.

Chester’s insistence that this happen was reinforced in 2002 by another related but unfortunate series of events in Winnipeg, which began six years earlier. In 1996, we lost a member of the old DWF gang – Bob Stimpson – who passed on at the way too early age of 47 from an illness. Unbeknownst to us all, his very large sf-focused collection had been bequeathed to the University of Winnipeg (UW), also caught unaware when it learned of its acquisition. Many of us thought that Bob had willed his collection to UW because in earlier years, Chester had sold bits of his library to it to help build its small but solid collection science fiction and fantasy. In any event, Bob had done the right thing – he wanted his collection made accessible to those who might benefit from it, learn from it, enjoy it, as he did.

However, after six years of housing the books in storage, UW decided it couldn’t process Bob’s collection, and despite an offer from my institution (UAL) to catalogue and house the collection on UW’s behalf, in 2002 sold the collection to one dealer, who obtained it by all accounts for a literal steal. When Chester learned of this transaction he was, as his son Ray has described it, “incensed”, to put it mildly. In a letter in the fanzine Gegenschein, #80, October 1997, Chester noted, “Bob Stimpson would be dismayed if he knew that his collection is considered little more than a problem.” Earlier, UW had asked Chester to assess Bob’s collection, the value of which he described as “possibly approaching a million” dollars.

Considering that the collection had been bequeathed in good faith, it indeed was a sad day that instead, a profit, and not a fair one at that, was made from a donation made with all good intentions by its donor. As Lorna Toolis of the Merril Collection in Toronto described it,

“It is very sad for everyone. For the University library, which was unable to avail itself of the opportunity. For the students, who will not have access to the materials. For Bob Stimpson, who tried very hard to do the right thing.”

In fairness to the UW Library, it was unprepared for such a large donation, and could not afford to keep it. Nonetheless, an amazing resource was lost to students and researchers forever.

Despite having moved away from Winnipeg in Dec 1978, I remained in touch with Chester, and began visiting him again some years ago, whenever I was in Winnipeg. Then in August of this year, we at UAL were contacted by his son Ray, to ask if we were still interested in his Father’s collection. In January of this year, Chester lost his loving wife of 62 years, Muriel, who left us at the age of 90, and combined with his advancing age, he was no longer able to maintain his large library. Dr Distad worked out the details with Ray, made arrangements for the packing and shipping of the collection, and we arrived to oversee its removal this week.

I arrived on Sunday night (30 September 2007), and on Monday returned to the airport to pick up a reporter from Folio, who, accompanied by a camera operator, was there to record the removal of the library from Chester’s home, and to interview a number of us, including Chester. On Tuesday, the movers arrived, and filled 2.5 half-tonne trucks with boxes. Wednesday the media frenzy began. Various local television and radio stations arrived for interviews, including City TV, Global, CTV, CBC Radio and CBC Television. I was interviewed by CBC Radio (live), and on tape with CTV and Global. I caught the CTV piece, which ran that evening, noticing that my last name was spelled incorrectly – not an unexpected thing. On Thursday I learned that the local CTV piece had aired across Canada on the CTV National News. On Thursday, the Winnipeg Free Press and the Winnipeg Sun arrived and interviewed Chester, along with Ray and myself. The Free Press story ran on Friday, and appeared in a number of other papers across the country as well. The Winnipeg Sun story is here. Additionally, Ray Cuthbert was interviewed on the national CBC radio program, As It Happens. You can listen to the interview, which is part of this file, from the Wednesday 03 October 2007 show. Note that you will have to listen to about 16 minutes of other interviews (and dead air in between those interviews) before you get to the interview with Ray.

On Thursday evening, Merrill and I feted Chester, together with many of his family members, at a dinner in Winnipeg. At the dinner, I was fortunate to present to Chester with some gifts on behalf of Merril and I, and our colleagues at the University of Alberta, in gratitude for his kind donation to us, and in honour of his forthcoming 95th birthday on 16 October 2007. I’m loading pictures from the week, and you can see the first batch here. Now comes the next phase, as the Cuthbert Collection makes its way to Edmonton, where it will eventually be unpacked and sorted, awaiting appraisal and processing. Each item will receive a book plate with an appropriate inscription and photograph of Chester, and once catalogued, will include a provenance note in the online catalogue, something to the effect of, “Chester D Cuthbert Collection”, which will allow researchers to search by that designation.

I consider myself blessed to have known Chester for over 30 years, and to have experienced his hospitality and warmth, together with that of his wife Muriel, over this period of time. While I know it is difficult for him to part with his life’s work, I also know from speaking with him privately that he is very grateful to know that his collection will be treated with respect and dignity, and made available for decades to come for those students and researchers who are interested in the fields he collected for so many decades. Thank you, Chester, for all you have done for us.

  • Archives

  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5
    This work is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5.