Su Chen and Juming Zhao
University of Minnesota
The Gest Chinese Research Library at
McGill University 1926-1936
The Gest Oriental Research Library at Princeton University is famous as a major
collection of old and rare Chinese materials in North America. Few however know that
this collection was initially hosted at McGill University in Montreal from 1926 to 1936.
Why did McGill host this library, what happened to the library during these years, why
was the library moved to Princeton, and what was the impact on McGill Chinese studies?
I will discuss this unique collection during its years at McGill, the evolution of the
Department of Chinese Studies at McGill, the move to Princeton in 1935 and 1936, and
then draw some conclusions about the significance of this collection.
In 1925 Guion M.Gest (1864-1948) first deposited his collection at McGill, and McGill
named it the Gest Chinese Research Library. By 1932, this collection had increased to
130,000 volumes, and had become one of the largest collections of old and rare Chinese
books in the West. Guion Gest's timely initiative, the exceptional knowledge of rare
Chinese books and the excellent book hunting skills of Irvin V. Gillis (1875-1948),
Gest's purchasing agent in China, and the library management skills of Nancy Lee Swann
(1881-1966), the curator of this collection from 1928 to 1948 contributed to the
uniqueness of the collection.
Very few people know that McGill University had a Chinese Studies program from 1930
to 1934. The most important consequence of the Gest library's establishment at McGill
was that McGill established the first department of Chinese studies in Canada. The
President of McGill Sir Arthur Currie believed that education as means to promote
international peace. However his untimely death in 1933 left his believes and dreams
unprotected. The Gest Chinese Research Library struggle without its last strong
advocator and supporter, along with other factors, the library closed its door to public on
This study sponsored by McGill Social Science and Humanities Fund and Friends of the
Princeton University Library. The study based on mainly archival materials at McGill
University Archives and Princeton University Archives. Many detailed information
regarding this unique collection was revealed for the first time.