Gathering the history of the book in Canada

Gathering the history of the book in Canada McGill University

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McGill Reporter
March 9, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 12
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 32: 1999-2000 > March 9, 2000 > Gathering the history of the book in Canada

Gathering the history of the book in Canada

| Usually when we think of books and history together, we think of history books — tomes that chronicle the history of a particular era, country or event. But what of the history of the book itself?

French language and literature professor Yvan Lamonde
PHOTO: OWEN EGAN

Given all that goes into a book, from the writing to the printing, from the making of the paper and binding materials to the printing process, from the illustrations to the process of distribution and the question of reception and literacy, not to mention the role of electronic publishing, the history of the book makes for a very broad subject indeed.

You need a lot of people to tackle a subject like that. Witness the new "A History of the Book in Canada/Histoire du livre et de l'imprimé au Canada" project.

More than 50 scholars from across the country will take part in the ambitious five-year project announced last month. Three volumes in each official language will be the result. And the scholars will be backed by a $2.3-million grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

French language and literature professor Yvan Lamonde, one of the project's two general editors and co-editor of Volume II: 1840-1918, was delighted when the project received the green light from SSHRC. "I'm proud that we [in Canada] believe in investing in the study of a good segment of the cultural and intellectual history of Canada and Quebec," says the historian, noting that the project has already been two years in preparation.

"A History of the Book in Canada" had its founding conference in 1997, he notes, and many papers for the project, which spans the period of the 16th century to the present, have already been written and may be found on the project's web site.

"Already, we have the conceptual framework, and the scholars are involved," says Lamonde. "We're in a position to skate quite fast and, I hope, quite well."

McGill's main skating partner is the University of Toronto, where the project is based and from where U of T bibliographer Patricia Fleming will serve as the other general editor. "It's important to have a project like this identified with McGill and the University of Toronto," says Lamonde of two of the country's best-known universities. "It will help to bring together all the scholars who have interests in this area."

Lamonde says McGill brings a lot to the table in embarking on a project of this sort. He cites McGill's Rare Books and Special Collections Division, which boasts an array of unique book collections, in areas as diverse as Canadian poetry, children's books, cookbooks and French Canadian history. The division's Lawrence Lande Collection of Canadiana, one of the most impressive collections of Canadian bibliographies found anywhere in the country, will likely be especially valuable.

McGill also boasts the Osler Library's extensive collection of historically important medical texts.

The other universities involved include Simon Fraser, Dalhousie and the Université de Sherbrooke. There is also an editor based in Regina, Lamonde's co-editor on volume II, Fiona Black, and another from the Library of the National Assembly in Quebec City, Gilles Gallichan. The idea is that the history of the book in every region of Canada will be represented.

From McGill's point of view, the grant will allow the hiring of five post-doctoral students over the five-year period, and will provide support for 15 graduate students. In addition to Lamonde, Professor Peter McNally from the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies will be a contributor in the area of print culture and English-speaking Quebec, and David McKnight, the digital collections librarian at Rare Books, helped design the project's web site. Former McGill Rare Books librarian Bruce Whiteman, active in the early stages of the project and now at the University of California in Los Angeles, is on the 14-member editorial committee.

Lamonde's area is the intellectual history of Quebec from 1760 to 1896 and he is soon to publish volume I, 1860 to 1896, of Histoire sociale des idées au Québec for which he received a Killam Fellowship. The volume which he is co-editing for the HBIC will cover such topics as the advent of book trade associations, the effect of technologies such as railways, the telegraph, electricity and linotype machines on print culture, the role of women in the book industry, reforms in education and the creation of public libraries. Lamonde's specialties are the history of public and private libraries in Quebec, the history of publishing in 18th and 19th century Montreal and the representation of the book in painting. He recently organized an exhibit on "The Book in Quebec Painting," now at the Château Ramezay museum.

With this project, Canada joins France, Great Britain, Scotland, Ireland, Australia and the United States and becomes part of an international network of book histories. In fact, in its final year, the "History of the Book in Canada" project will host an international conference on the history of the book, "to see what the next step will be," says Lamonde, who's thrilled by the potential for this project to galvanize an ongoing, national and multidisciplinary probe into a major aspect of Canadian cultural history. For McGill, he hopes the project "will help build some kind of forum of people interested in book history."

In order to help the scholars involved, the research phase of the project will start by creating an on-line database of all the published literature on book history and related disciplines under the heading "The History of the Book in Canada: A Bibliography." The project's website is: www.hbic.library.utoronto.ca.

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