History of the book

William Colgate History of Printing Collection

The Colgate Collection documents the changing technologies and practices in the printing of text and image over more than 500 years.

Introduction: The William Colgate History of Printing Collection has developed over half a century into one of the most comprehensive collections of its kind in North America. The Colgate Collection documents the changing technologies and practices in the printing of text and image over more than 500 years.

Extent: The collection houses over 14,000 items, divided into 10 sections covering type design, type founding, letterpress printing, book illustration, papermaking, and binding. The collection is complemented by significant models of nineteenth-century iron hand-presses, and various tools of the printing trade. Across the spectrum of the book arts, the Colgate Collection stores key primary resources on the history of printing.

Types of material:

Types of material include limited editions, specimen sheets, printers’ manuals and handbooks, allied trades catalogues, secondary literature, historical and current journals, broadsides, posters, and several hundred pieces of printed ephemera from various printing establishments.

A special attraction of the Colgate History of Printing Collection are the five historical iron hand-presses including a rare Stanhope (c.1821), an early Columbian (c. 1821), a compact Albion (c.1839) and a large Washington press (c. 1830-1840). Two of the presses were purchased with the assistance of William Colgate. Technical artefacts include tools of the trade for printers, illustrators, binders and papermakers. There are copper steel and zinc plates, lithographic stones, woodblocks, paper moulds and cabinets full of trays containing an ample supply of metal type, ornaments and wood type. The Book Arts Lab was launched in 2019 to develop programming based in this material.

Date range: Private press imprints range primarily from late eighteenth century to the present day, while technical manuals date back as early as the seventeenth century.

Language/s: Predominantly English (75%), French (10%), followed by Italian and German, and Latin.

Geographic coverage: Printed material is largely from Great Britain, France, North America, Italy, and Germany.

Provenance: Established in 1956 from a gift of books of typographical interest from the Toronto art historian, William G. Colgate (1882-1971), in collaboration with University Librarian Richard Pennington (1947-1964) with a printed catalogue. The collection is relevant in addressing a resurgence of scholarship on the history of the book and print culture, and thus, remains at the forefront of our collecting endeavours.


The Private Press category is the largest area of the collection, showcasing more than 6000 titles, represented by over 100 separate presses. Collectively these editions exemplify the evolution of book production, and the reveal innovative techniques and aesthetic trends in printing, starting with those who set high standards of design and craftsmanship in Pre-War Britain: William Morris’ Kelmscott Press (1891), Ergany Press (1894) Ashendene Press (1894), Vale Press (1896), Essex House Press (1898), and the Dove’s Press (1900). Of the latter, McGill owns a copy of the prized English Bible in five volumes (1903 -1905), hailed as a typographic masterpiece.

Of the modern presses developed in the 20th century, McGill owns a complete run of the Cuala Press from Ireland, and scarce editions from the Black Sun Press, published by American expatriates in Paris. There are also strong holdings of American contemporary presses such as the Black Sparrow Press, a dynamic press from California, publishing “America’s literary outsiders”, employing distinctive colourful bindings and text designs and frontispieces. Other strengths of American houses include the Bird and Bull Press (Pennsylvania) a substantial line of work from the Perishable Press (Wisconsin) and a complete collection of the art and craft productions by the Janus Press (Vermont).

Over 15 Canadian private presses constitute a growing representation of Canadian contemporary private presses, exemplified by the work of Jan & Crispin Elsted of the Barbarian Press (British Columbia); George Walker, Margaret Lock and William Reuter of the Aliquando Press (Ontario); Gaspereau Press (Nova Scotia) and many more. In addition, there are spectaclular examples of Book Art and Artists Books in 400 copies many of Canadian provenance.

This core is supported by over 2,000 histories of the private presses, including biographies of proprietors, printers and designers. This is supplmented by specialized historical bibliography, exhibition catalogues and reference books.

A vast range of examples of type specimens, rarely held in other collections, is exemplified by over 1600 type founders’ and printers’ specimens sheets and catalogues. Works by the eighteenth -century French masters, such as Pierre-Simon Fournier, coincide with the famous English houses like Wiliam Caslon and Sons and Joseph Fry and Sons. Holdings also include significant German and Italian type designs from the 1930s to 1960s.

The art and technique of printing is explained through various printers’ manuals and handbooks amounting to more nearly 1000 historical titles including the technique and processes used for the printing of illustrations, with more than 500 spectacular examples featuring colour printing. Typographical design and letter forms, make up over 600 works showing work of master typogrpahers like Eric Gill and Stanley Morison. The history and craft of paper-making is included in over 300 titles, supplemented by paper samples, for which Canadian manufacturers are well represented. This category is extended by sheets of decorative papers: marbled, flowered, coloured, stenciled and patterned papers of various origins. The bindings category offers a good supply of reference sources in over 100 titles plus a selection of extraordinary historical binding styles covering the Northern European Renaissance era of through to the Art deco era of the twentieth century. Many exceptional bindings are found on the covers of the editions housed in the Private Press category.

Regarding book designers, there is a focussed group of more than 300 examples associated with American book designer, W.A. Dwiggins (1880-1956) and hundreds of designs by the American author, illustrator and book designer Edward Gorey (1925-2000). The collection integrates several Publisher series, including: Britain in Pictures (1941-1949); King Penguin Books (1945-1959), Stone and Kimball (1893-1906), Doubleday Anchor Books of New York (1950s- 1960s); Alfred A. Knopf (1920-1050), Insel Limited editions, and a Decorated Cloth Publisher Bindings Collection (1850-1950).

The William G. Colgate History of Printing Collection is the major repository in Canada for the work of Robert R. Reid (1947-2022), one of the most acclaimed typographers and graphic designers ever to work in Canada. A donation in 2019 of the archive of Glenn Goluska (1947- 2011) is the crowning accession to our Canadian content, including his private press productions, commercial work and professional work for the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal in his role as chief graphic designer. Of Canadian historical importance, there are limited editions by the Montreal publisher Canadian Ronalds, active in the 1920s and the private press books by Thoreau MacDonald (1901-1989), along with his original designs for books, which are part of the original donation from William Colgate.

Catalogued holdings: The majority of the collection is available through the McGill Catalogue.

Access to the collection: Researchers are able to request consultation of the materials through the McGill Library catalogue. Appendices of the presses, ephemera, artefacts and the presses can be requested by appointment with the librarian.

Librarian & Curator: Ann Marie Holland, Liaison Librarian (e-mail: ann.holland [at] mcgill.ca, telephone: 514-398-4707)


Rare Books holds some 140 incunabula, the earliest being Paulus de Sancta Maria Scrutinium scripturarum (Strasbourg: Johann Mentelin, not after 1470). The first incunabulum acquired by the McGill library was a copy of Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea (Basel: [Michael Wenssler], 1490). It came with the bequest of the library of John Robson, M.D. of Warrington, England in 1877. Italian and German printing is particularly well represented as are theology, the classics and Italian literature. Among the more important items are two copies of the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), a copy of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1499), Henry Parker's Dives and Pauper (Westminster: Wynkyn de Worde, 1496) and the third edition of Pliny's Historia Naturalis (Venice: Nicolas Jensen, 1472), the William Morris copy. There are as well a number of fragments and single leaves including a leaf of the 42-line Bible printed by Johann Gutenberg ca 1455. With the some 150 incunabula held by the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University Libraries has the largest collection of incunabula in Canada. The study of incunabula is supported by the extensive holdings of Rare Books Reference Collection on the subject of early printed books.

Librarian & Curator: Ann Marie Holland, Liaison Librarian (e-mail: ann.holland [at] mcgill.ca, telephone: 514-398-4707)

Thomas Bewick Collection

The collection was established ca 1969. It includes examples of the wood engravings of Thomas and John Bewick of Newcastle, England, from the late 18th and 19th centuries. Both monographs (89) illustrated by them and scrapbooks of examples of their work are present. Of particular interest is the recently acquired 1826 edition of A History of British Birds. It is heavily annotated throughout, with notes on the impression of the plates, the descriptions of the birds and the order of the entries on almost every page. Many of these changes appear in 1832 edition, the first to appear after Thomas Bewick's death in 1828. In addition, there are 700 engraved wood blocks from the early 19th century, of which ten are by Thomas Bewick.

Description: Christopher Heppner, "A Collection of Wood Blocks and Related Material at McGill University". The Book Collector, vol. 35, no. 1 (Spring 1986), 53-66.

Librarian & Curator: Jennifer Garland, Assistant Head Librarian (e-mail: jennifer.garland [at] mcgill.ca, telephone: 514-398-4785)


Introduction: The collection contains over 900 British and American chapbooks published in the 18th and 19th centuries. Through a generous donation from the Harold Crabtree Foundation, digital facsimiles have been prepared and a virtual collection created. See this website for more information.

Librarian & Curator: Ann Marie Holland, Liaison Librarian (e-mail: ann.holland [at] mcgill.ca, telephone: 514-398-4707)

Decorated cloth bindings

Introduction: The collection was established in the late 1970s. Books with decorated cloth bindings were gathered from uncatalogued materials, including donations. The collection has been added to subsequently by purchase and donation.

Extent: The collection is composed of some 1.100 volumes significant for their decorated (pictorial or lettered) cloth bindings published between 1850 and 1950. The bulk of the collection falls between approximately 1890 and 1920. The collection is arranged chronologically and access is through card files of main entries and illustrators.

Librarian & Curator: Ann Marie Holland, Liaison Librarian (e-mail: ann.holland [at] mcgill.ca, telephone: 514-398-4707)

Bookplate Collection

The bookplate collection comprises more than 6,000 Canadian and non-Canadian bookplates. The bookplate collection of the Montrealer Philippe Masson (1911-1944), including both personal and institutional plates, contains the major portion of the Canadian bookplates, over 3,000, and is arranged alphabetically. It was acquired in 1972. There are indexes to the Masson collection including ones for names, designers and mottoes and quotations. The rest of the bookplate collection is divided between armorial and non-armorial plates with the Canadian plates arranged separately. The collection is available through the Philippe Masson Collection (Bookplates) website.

Librarian & Curator: Ann Marie Holland, Liaison Librarian (e-mail: ann.holland [at] mcgill.ca, telephone: 514-398-4707)

Stone and Kimball Collection

The collection was purchased in 1972. The 413 volumes in the collection comprise the majority of the books of the American publishers Stone & Kimball (1893-1897) of Cambridge, Chicago and New York, and Herbert S. Stone & Company (1896-1905) of Chicago and New York. There are many variants in the collection. The work of these publishers is particularly important in terms of book design and the authors they published. Their work is an epitome of late 19th century American literature and book culture. The Stone and Kimball Collection is part of the Colgate History of Printing Collection. Records for the holdings are in the McGill Library catalogue.

Librarian & Curator: Ann Marie Holland, Liaison Librarian (e-mail: ann.holland [at] mcgill.ca, telephone: 514-398-4707)


Arthur Rackham Collection

The Arthur Rackham Collection was acquired in 1955 from the collector Dr. Arthur C. Hill of Sherbrooke, Quebec. Additional items have been added since and the collection now comprises some 200 monographs with illustrations by Rackham, numerous issues of the early magazines to which he contributed illustrations and some ephemera. It is representative of the artwork that Rackham produced throughout his career with examples of most of the different media in which he worked as a book illustrator. Many of the works appear in first editions, but later and augmented editions are also represented. The collection includes many of the early travel guides and popular novels illustrated by Rackham before he became famous.

Related RBSC collections: The Rackham Collection complements the Children's Books Collection.

Description: See the unpublished study by Lisa Rasmussen "Catalogue of Books Illustrated by Arthur Rackham housed in the Rare Books and Special Collections, McLennan Library, McGill University". [Montreal: n.d. (but 1991)]. It is available for consultation in Rare Books.

Librarian & Curator: Jennifer Garland, Assistant Head Librarian (e-mail: jennifer.garland [at] mcgill.ca, telephone: 514-398-4785)

Arthur Szyk Collection

Introduction: The Norman Friedman collection of the Polish Jewish artist Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) was acquired in 1976. An exhibition and 1-day conference on Arthur Szyk was held at McGill in November 2012. For more information, please see this website.

Extent: The collection comprises 55 titles including the Haggadah (1939, one of 125 copies) and a presentation copy in wrappers of Le juif qui rit (1926); 13 drawings and six boxes of illustrations, ephemera and various other material relating to Szyk.

Access to the collection: Researchers are able to search and request catalogued material via the McGill Library catalogue. Requests can also be made by contacting the librarian or visiting the Rare Books and Special Collections reading room. A printed finding aid is available.

Librarian & Curator: Jennifer Garland, Assistant Head Librarian (e-mail: jennifer.garland [at] mcgill.ca, telephone: 514-398-4785)

Woodblock Collection

Introduction: McGill’s woodblock collection dates from 1932 with the acquisition of 797 woodblocks from Northern England and London. Subsequent smaller acquisitions bring the current total to 822 blocks. The collection includes interesting examples from the 17th century to the 19th century, mostly from the Newcastle-upon-Tyne area in England, but also from York, London, Edinburgh, and even New York. Images represented on the woodblocks range from biblical scenes to animals, to early flying machines and household scenes, and they were used for a wide variety of publication types.

The oldest pieces come from the printing shop of John White (1689-1769) in Newcastle. His collection then passed to several other Newcastle printers who enriched it with contemporary additions from local engravers, including Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) and his pupils. From the 1830s until its purchase by McGill Library, the various parts of the collection were carefully preserved by private collectors, especially Bewick lovers.

The work of Thomas Bewick and his pupils is likely the reason for the original purchase. Some blocks were used in editions of Bewick’s most famous works, such as Fables of Aesop and others (McGill has several editions, the earliest being PA3855 E5 B49 1818), the Select Fables (idem, PN982 S4 1820), the History of British Birds (idem, QL690 G7 B57 1809) and the History of Quadrupeds (idem, QL706 B57 1791). But the bulk of the collection consists in examples of early work by both Thomas Bewick and his brother John Bewick, as well as their pupils’ engravings. Over 300 of McGill’s woodblocks are the product of this “Bewick School”. This aspect of the collection is well supported by the RBSC’s Bewick Collection.

Passing from one owner to another, the collection developed beyond the Newcastle area and the work of the Bewick School. It displays a fairly important number of blocks used in small chapbooks and children books, especially, such as fables and fairytales. Some of the titles illustrated with McGill’s woodblocks were very popular in the 19th century and count numerous editions from different parts of the UK. In particular, McGill holds 45 blocks designed and engraved by Robert Cruikshank (1789-1856) for the 1833 first edition of Fifty one original fables, printed in London. About 100 blocks were designed or engraved by his brother George Cruikshank (1792-1878) and his pupils for London chapbooks and newspapers, especially caricatures and comic designs. Fourteen blocks designed by William Blake are housed in Lawrence Lande Blake Collection.

Ten woodblocks are part of the Sheila Bourke Collection and provide an example of wood engraving in the United States. The blocks were used for an edition of Cinderella and the Little Glass Slipper published around 1863 in New York (PZ8 C488 1863). As for several other woodblocks, McGill Library holds a copy of this edition using the blocks.

A detailed inventory of the collection is available on request. The woodblocks housed in the Blacker Wood Collection, the Blake Collection and the Sheila R. Bourke Collection can be viewed in the online catalogue.

Description: Christopher Heppner, "A Collection of Wood Blocks and Related Material at McGill University", The Book Collector, vol. 35, no. 1 (Spring 1986), 53-66.


Librarian & Curator: Jennifer Garland, Assistant Head Librarian (e-mail: jennifer.garland [at] mcgill.ca, telephone: 514-398-4785)

Edward Gorey Collection

Introduction: The collection of the American designer, illustrator and author Edward Gorey (1925-2000) consists of books by and/or illustrated by him. The books, of which there are 88 volumes, are mostly first editions and date from the period ca 1950 to 1980. As well, there is a small body of ephemera including book jackets by and articles about Gorey.

Librarian & Curator: Ann Marie Holland, Liaison Librarian (e-mail: ann.holland [at] mcgill.ca, telephone: 514-398-4707)

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