Cool Literature

    What you'll find at the U of A's Circumpolar Library

    By Sarah Ligon on November 26, 2012

    If you’ve ever wondered about the best way to skin a seal or how to survive a plunge into freezing water, the answers to these and just about any other questions you might have about the Far North can be found among the 339,000 resources that make up the Canadian Circumpolar Library.

    materials from the Circumpolar Library Collection

    (Photo: Richard Siemens)

    Housed primarily on the fourth floor of the U of A’s Cameron Library, the Circumpolar Library is a world-class specialized collection focusing on Northern Canada and the circumpolar regions of Greenland, Siberia and Scandinavia, as well as Antarctica. Founded in 1960, when it was part of what was then known as the Boreal Institute, it is now one of the world’s largest repositories of northern-related books, research matter, digital resources and grey literature — that is, pamphlets, reports and other ephemera, which are chock full of useful historical information but often relegated to the dustbin of history.

    One such pamphlet, “A Pocket Guide to Cold Weather Survival,” outlines how best to survive submersion in freezing water: “remain as still as possible,” “try to keep your head and neck out of water” and, helpfully, “keep a positive attitude.” Others describe how to garden on permafrost or build your own snowshoes. And there’s a particularly informative set of guides published by the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension on “tanning at home,” recipes for reindeer and caribou meat, and a pattern for sewing a Qaspeq, an Inuit hoodie.

    “It really is all over the map, it’s such an interdisciplinary collection,” says circumpolar librarian Lindsay Johnston.

    “Probably the most interesting thing I’ve come across in the collection is a reference to a pizzly — a cross between a polar bear and a grizzly bear,” says Johnston. “After I read about it, I asked some wildlife biologists if there really was such a thing, and they said, yes, there is.”

    If you are looking for additional winter reading, you might also try the Canadian Circumpolar Press. Housed in the basement of Pembina Hall, the CCI Press publishes new books about the North, with some 115 in its catalogue.

    Its most popular titles range from the academic, such as Understanding Earth’s Polar Systems (also available in a free digital edition), to the more general interest, like The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North. “It’s full of recipes for using local plants for making medicines,” says managing editor Elaine Maloney. “Such as using arnica, which is found in the boreal forests, to make a cream to treat sprains and bruises.”

    Try that next time you’re out of aspirin.

    Browse the CCL at and the CCI-Press at