May 23, 2024 | Campus

Learn long and prosper: U of T’s Fisher Library becomes ‘eternal archive’ on Star Trek: Discovery

The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library was chosen as a filming location for the latest episode of the sci-fi series because of its unique architecture and “commitment to preservation and the pursuit of knowledge”

By Adina Bresge

Three Star Trek characters standing in library stacks

Hy'Rell (Elena Juatco) leads Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Book (David Ajala) through the Eternal Archive and Gallery in an episode of Star Trek: Discovery that was filmed in U of T's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library (photo by Marni Grossman/Paramount+)

The team behind Star Trek: Discovery didn’t have to venture too far into the final frontier to find the perfect venue for a boundless library containing all the knowledge of the universe.

The University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library stars as a complete repository of cosmic wisdom in the latest episode of the sci-fi series, titled “Labyrinths,” which premiered this week and is available to stream on Paramount Plus.

The exterior of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library
The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library

With its tiered stacks of timeless tomes, the Fisher library – a brutalist architectural marvel – serves as more than a retro-futuristic TV setting, says Michael Cassabon, director of advancement at U of T Libraries. 

“I think the university is trying to imagine an ideal future and bring it into the present … whether it’s working on inclusion, diversity and equity, or science and exploration,” he says. 

“The Star Trek future represents a lot of what we’re trying to materialize.”

A self-proclaimed “Trekkie,” Cassabon says he had to set his fandom aside when reviewing the request to bring the USS Discovery to Fisher Library, which holds about 800,000 volumes and 5,000 linear metres of manuscripts.

One Star Trek character stands in the library
Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery (photo by Marni Grossman/Paramount+)

The Toronto-based production has previously filmed at various U of T locations. However, camera crews rarely gain access to Fisher Library’s valuable stacks and a shoot of this scale was unprecedented, Cassabon says.

The deciding factor? The pivotal role Fisher Library would play in the run-up to the series finale, offering the galaxy a glimpse of the rich trove of knowledge preserved within its walls.

“It was exciting that Fisher Library wouldn’t just be a backdrop,” Cassabon says. “It was like the library itself was a character – a very important character – in the story.

“The Fisher Library is a national treasure, and we thought this was a really good way of making it known to a lot of folks out there.”

The fifth and final season of Star Trek: Discovery sends the crew on an interstellar scavenger hunt to uncover a hidden ancient power. The final clue lies in the “eternal archive,” an infinite library safeguarding the secrets of the universe.

As soon as Star Trek: Discovery location manager Melissa Warry-Smith read the site description, she says only one place came to mind.

“Not only does [Fisher Library] look like it is from the future and could in fact have been plucked directly from the Star Trek universe, but the library’s commitment to preservation and the pursuit of knowledge is intrinsic to the core values of Star Trek,” Warry-Smith says.

A film crew in the library
Larry Alford, right, university chief librarian, observes filming from a director's chair (photo by Michael Cassabon)

“The library is a stunning example of what we can achieve when we care deeply about preserving and sharing knowledge, and commit to coming together to use that knowledge for a shared vision of a better future for all – and what could be more Star Trek than that?”

This respect for the preservation of knowledge shaped the production team’s approach to shooting the scenes, says Cassabon.

Filming took place overnight to minimize disruption to readers and researchers. The crew worked with Fisher’s librarians and archivists to implement strict protocols to protect its precious collections, including using heat-free lighting to prevent damage to delicate materials.

Cassabon and Larry Alford, university chief librarian at U of T Libraries, were on set for part of the shoot. 

For Cassabon, meeting the show’s cast and crew was a fanboy moment.

“It was super surreal for me,” he says. “These are my childhood heroes.”

An overhead view of the library
Filming took place overnight to minimize disruption to readers and researchers`(photo by Marni Grossman/Paramount+)

Cassabon adds that many researchers, professors and students have drawn inspiration from Star Trek as they look to tackle some of the greatest challenges in the world – and beyond

Many of the show’s themes are reflected on campus, he says. 

For example, the episode’s search through the “eternal archive” echoes the work of a U of T-led international research collaboration that’s using new techniques to unearth long-hidden stories lurking within Fisher Library and other collections, Cassabon says. And he notes that Star Trek has a nearly six-decade history of breaking new TV ground when it comes diverse representation and inclusivity – another one of the university’s core values.

“So much of Star Trek is imaging a world where … the things that label and divide us have faded away,” Cassabon says. “The university is all about trying to create a more inclusive and just world. It’s all about working together in harmony toward progress.”

Both U of T and Fisher Library are credited in “Labyrinths,” which is dedicated to “librarians everywhere, dedicated to the preservation of artifacts, knowledge, and truth.”

Originally published by U of T News

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