University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

The Evolution of the Book in Canada

New volume traces print back hundreds of years

What was the name of Canada’s first newspaper? What was the first document to be printed in a native Canadian language? And where was the first printing office in British North America located?

For those fascinated by Canadian history, the answers can be found in the History of the Book in Canada: Volume 1, Beginnings to 1840, a nationwide project headquartered at the University of Toronto.

The History of the Book in Canada/Histoire du livre et de l’imprimé au Canada is a three-volume history to be published in English and French. This first volume contains work from 58 authors from all regions of Canada (including 15 affiliated with U of T) and represents more than seven years of research.

“We need this kind of chronicle because it is an important part of the cultural history of Canada. It strengthens our identity and you learn so much from it, such as how this industry affected the economic history of the nation, the status of women, of native Canadians,” says Professor Patricia Fleming of the Faculty of Information Studies who served as writer, project director and co-editor (with Gilles Gallichan, Bibliothéque de l’Assemblée nationale du Québec and Yvan Lamonde, McGill University).

The 570-page book covers such topics as the effects of explorers, traders and missionaries on the printed word; how books and print were circulated through the years; how literacy was spread to the public; print in daily life; the world of children’s literature; and the many languages used in the early Canadian presses. “Along with English and French there were German, Gaelic and six native languages being published before the middle of the 19th century,” says Fleming.

In fact, there are the printer’s records from Quebec detailing the publication of a native Canadian text (an almanac in Montagnais) that is dated 1766. Fleming also notes that both English and French publishing started the very same year – 1752, in Halifax, which had the first printing press. “A press wouldn’t open for business in Quebec until 1764,” she says. Fleming also notes that the very first printed text in Canada wasn’t a book but a newspaper – the Halifax Gazette.

The History of the Book in Canada project was granted more than $2 million by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Most of the research on Canada’s print history had previously been done on a provincial or regional scale, and it took the age of electronic-information gathering to make it all accessible to scholars. “Today you can research the whole country backed by the strength of the research library infrastructure that’s in place now,” she says.

Fleming is especially proud of the pictures gracing the book – some going back to the 1700s. “There is,” she says with a laugh, “a picture of someone reading a book in a canoe – which is inevitable.”

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