An Interview with the Merril Collection’s Sephora Henderson

Harry Potter Day, Star Wars Day and a weekend of comics positions May as one of the geekiest months of the year. To sink our fangs into this theme, we spoke with the Merril Collection‘s Senior Department Head, Sephora Henderson, about the collection and the power of the sci-fi, fantasy and speculative genres!

How would you describe the Merril Collection and how did the collection come to be?

SH: In 1970, the Toronto Public Library accepted a donation of 5,000 items from the personal collection of Judith Merril, who was a science fiction author and editor.  The collection was housed in other, smaller locations before its current location at 239 College St., and was originally named the Spaced Out Library.  In 1995, the collection was re-named after the donor and has been the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy ever since. It has grown to [house] over 80,000 items.

The collection consists primarily of fiction materials in the speculative fiction genres – science fiction, fantasy and related sub-genres, but there is also a small collection of non-fiction materials, the world’s largest RPG collection in a public setting, and over 5,000 graphic novels, pulp magazines, periodicals and art.

We have rare and antiquarian books alongside the most recently published materials in the genre – our goal is to collect one of everything published in English.

Sephora Henderson, Senior Department Head of the Merril Collection

We read that the Merril Collection hadn’t hired a new senior department head in 30 years when you were giving the reins. How did you find yourself in charge of this very cool space?

SH: I competed for it and won, haha!  Seriously though, my predecessor remained in the position for over 30 years, and during her career she built the collection and community around it into a truly wonderful space.  When she announced her retirement, I was the head of special collections at the Toronto Reference Library, and I knew that I had to try for the position. My whole life I have loved fantastic fiction in all of its forms.  My experience and qualifications were likely the deciding factors in determining me as the successful candidate for the role – but I like to think that my enthusiasm for the genre and my goals to raise the profile of the collection through social media and other efforts did not go unnoticed.

What’s the weirdest or coolest item in your collection that readers wouldn’t expect?

SH: All of it is a little weird – which is what makes it so wonderful.  In terms of cool, there is so much – material that is cool because of content, cover art, construction, provenance, etc. The first thing that comes to mind for me though, is the collection’s first edition copy of Dracula, from 1897.  It has a very unassuming cover – a pea-soup shade of yellow with large red letters – but the publisher’s choice of an unadorned cover in that colour was a message to the public about the scandalous contents of the book, which I find fascinating.

First edition copy of Dracula (1897)

One of the bookstores we spotlighted as part of Toronto’s 185th anniversary celebration was Bakka-Phoenix Books, the country’s oldest sci-fi and fantasy bookstore, which got us thinking: What’s the city’s relationship to sci-fi, speculative and fantasy storytelling?

SH: Toronto has been, and is currently, home to many writers in this genre.  Judith Merril herself, after whom the collection was named, was an American expatriate who made her home here and found herself among many like-minded individuals. Being a large, urban centre, Toronto attracts all kinds of people and I’m not sure what the correlation is with SF/F storytelling – it is a meeting place and a space that is–at its heart–welcoming, and that values freedom of expression. In that regard, Toronto is a fine a place to encourage contemplation and unleash one’s imagination.

What would you recommend to a reader who wants to give sci-fi, speculative and fantasy fiction a chance?

SH: Speculative fiction is an umbrella term for science fiction and fantasy, which can be further subdivided into numerous subgenres – like horror, cyberpunk, fairy tales, space opera, dystopian fiction, hard science fiction, time travel, etc. It is incredibly expansive and diverse, so I believe there is something for everyone, even those who say they don’t like SF/F literature. Those who don’t find something they like initially are sure to find their niche eventually.

There are countless novels that form part of extensive series, and if you are just getting started, trying a standalone novel or a short series might be easier – although there is no rule that dictates reading everything in a series just because it was written!  I have a long list of personal favourites I am happy to recommend, and I’ve also been recommended novels and series that I didn’t ultimately enjoy – so it is very subjective.  If you try something like space opera and don’t enjoy it, then try something really different – like high fantasy – and there is also a lot in between if neither of those ends up being just the thing – but I am confident there is a speculative fiction read for everyone. Most important is to give it a chance – there is no other kind of literature that fuels the imagination in quite the same way.

Merril Collection reading room