Wednesday, September 15, 2004

What is the history of (Canadian) books?

I’m fairly well organized for my comps. I’ve got most of the topics down… except for one rather large gaping hole: the history of the book. I’m just going to thrash around a bit and see if I can generate something.

I suppose the place to start is in my own backyard. There has recently been a project to study the history of the book within Canada. At the leadoff conference in 1997 Mary Lu MacDonald (1997) presented a paper that explored some of the interesting features of the Canadian book industry. Of primary importance seems to be that our glorious country was actually a cultural backwater that didn’t really support any kind of book industry until after Confederation (1867). MacDonald cites a number of different factors such as problems with postage, transportation, and literacy but she also provides some interesting insights. The first concerns the nature of native-born Canadian authors: they were largely genteel and only wrote in their youth before adopting more lucrative careers. She also notes the presence of “Canadian” authors who were actually imports from the Scottish school system and employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

From the vantage provided by MacDonald I see a number of avenues to take this discussion. With the mention of trading and the Hudson’s Bay Company I feel compelled to discuss Innis and his interpretation of space and time. Unfortunately, he’s not on my comps list. Or I could go full bore into Habermas and the public sphere or perhaps Darnton’s history of the book in Europe. I could even tie in the scientific communication cycle. My interest in Canada, however, is piqued. I’m just going to keep hammering away at these papers. My great-grandfather—himself quite a Canadian history buff—would be proud!

MacDonald noted the importance of newspapers in developing written culture within Canada. Julie Stabile (2000) resumes this theme by studying the development of newspapers in Toronto between the years 1805 and confederation. She claims that the newspaper is directly responsible for Canadian written culture. She notes that newspapers were important not just for fostering print culture but for introducing technologies for producing print. Indeed, the early newspaper shops not only printed and sold newspapers but books, pamphlets, broadsides, manuals, hymnals, and any other type of printed missive that a citizen was willing to sponsor. Books, however, were still very expensive. As literacy spread, newspapers therefore began to print the type of human-interest information more typically presented in book form. Newspapers fulfilled the role of a poor-man’s library.

Now which way should I go? Again, we have a good lead in for Habermas (on the comps list), Henry Adams, and de Toqueville (not on the comps list). Stabile also introduces the importance of newspapers as a technology of production. A very interesting discussion could concern aspects of stabilization of technology using some sort of ANT, SCOT, or STS perspective. Of course, one aspect still missing is the public library and how it may have had an effect on this whole process. Back to Canada.

On a slightly different track, Jonathan Franklin (Franklin, 2001) reviews the extant 19th century Canadian art exhibition and auction catalogues. I’m still not too sure what to make of this piece. Basically, Franklin reviews the features of a number of different catalogues and then states that these catalogues were important for developing a sense of art appreciation within the Canadian context. Although Franklin doesn’t focus specifically on public institutions, he notes that the catalogues acted as an important means of communication as the collection of art moved from a private activity of wealthy individuals to a publicly supported endeavour as indicated by the establishment of (privately endowed) museums and art collections.

Of perhaps more importance than catalogues in the creation of public institutions was the work of William Logan and the Geological Survey of Canada. Brian Shipley (Shipley, 2001) provides a remarkable review of Logan’s work from the perspective of the annual reports that he was required to file. Although born in Montreal, Logan was raised and trained in Britain where he learned a particularly pain staking and meticulous approach to geology. North American standards, however, were considerably rougher and Logan was required to file annual reports that he felt were useless for a project that would last decades. In the compilation of his reports, Logan hit on a genre of three parts: a narrative description of a location, a detailed analysis of stratigraphy, and a detailed analysis from an economic perspective. His reports were a hit and the Geological Survey of Canada was able to secure additional funding. Unfortunately, the reports were published in the Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada and were invisible to the scientific community. This invisibility of information eventually led to a crisis of information where the government intervened and ordered the printing of a retrospective omnibus—The Geology of Canada (1863)—that was distributed to members of the assembly, the various nascent forms of libraries and educational settings, and to the learned organizations of the US and Europe. Shipley claims that this work was the pinnacle of scientific publishing in Canada in the 19th century.

In these two descriptions of non-typical books (art catalogues and annual reports) we begin to see a picture of how seemingly minor works could have played an important role in the emergence of our nation. There are a number of ways to review them—I’m thinking Actor-Network, or Heterogeneous Engineering—but I’m just going to keep on chugging along to see where else I can get to in this morass of Canadian book ephemera.

Another example of non-typical book publishing is Diana Patterson’s (2001) look at the technical manuals that were used on the prairies during settlement periods. Patterson mourns the loss of many of these references due to their ephemeral nature. She notes that manuals for old tractors, which were likely common at one time, are now completely unattainable. Unlike much of the literature on library shelves, these technical manuals were actually owned by individuals and used to accomplish the tasks of daily living. Few remain. Patterson notes that the needs to accomplish these daily tasks in a frontier environment fostered a “cosmopolitan attitude toward information” in the Canadian reader. A Manitoba farmer in 1890 would read a book about the prairies of Illinois due to the lack of Canadian specific information. British, French, or American readers may not have had such expansive tastes.

While some of the author work I’ve explored seems fairly self-contained, Paul Hjartarson (2001) incorporates Robert Darnton’s work on the history of the book. In particular, he explores a set of books published by the Manitoba government at the turn of the last century entitled The Manitoba Ruthenian-English Readers. By exploring the history of these school books from the perspective of Darnton’s cycle of book publishing (author, publisher, printer, shipper, bookseller, reader) and using Darnton’s analytical framework (other activities a person is doing, other persons at the time point in other circuits, other persons at other points in the same circuit, other elements in society), Hjartarson describes these books as a tool in the process of assimilating immigrants to Anglo-Saxon cultural norms. Tellingly, bi-lingual education and the readers themselves were destroyed after Canada entered the First World War where Ukrainian (or Ruthenian) soldiers were the enemy. Oddly missing from Hjartarson’s work is any whiff of Foucault. I’m not sure if this absence is a good or bad thing.

Now that I’ve worked my way to the end of some of these papers (there are others) I’m oddly apathetic. I still have no desire to do anything with any of this stuff. In there interest of my comps, however, I’ll create a list of follow up issues:

1. Is reading typically shaped by contextual factors? How is the Canadian context unique?
2. What are the processes of “stabilizing” an artifact like a book?
3. How is the stabilization of the physical book different from the stabilization of the markings or the discourse?


Franklin, J. (2001). Nineteenth-Century Canadian Art Exhibition and Auction Catalogues. Paper Presented at History of the Book in Canada: Volume II Open Conference. Retrieved September 10, 2004, from
Hjartarson, P. (2001). “Now Then, All Together!” Assimilation, the Book, and the Educations of New Canadians 1896-1918. Paper Presented at History of the Book in Canada: Volume II Open Conference. Retrieved September 10, 2004, from
MacDonald, M. L. (1997). Becoming An Author. Paper Presented at History of the Book in Canada: Founding Conference. Retrieved September 10, 2004, from
Patterson, D. (2001). Technical Books on the Prairies to 1950. Paper Presented at History of the Book in Canada: Prarie Print Culture Colloquium. Retrieved September 10, 2004, from
Shipley, B. C. (2001). ‘I wish these annual reports were at the devil’: William E. Logan and the publications of the Geological Survey of Canada. Paper Presented at History of the Book in Canada: Volume II Open Conference. Retrieved September 10, 2004, from
Stabile, J. (2000). Early newspapers: Instruments in the spread of print culture: A case study of Toronto newspapers, 1800-1845. Paper Presented at History of the Book in Canada: Volume 1 Open Conference. Retrieved September 10, 2004, from