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Impressions: 250 Years of Printing in the Lives of Canadians


During the last decade of the 20th century, the ever increasing use of the Internet as a source of information and communication has prompted some to predict the disappearance of the printed word. This exhibition is meant neither as a eulogy of printing, nor as a retrospective look at a form of communication about to be replaced, but rather as a reminder that printing in Canada, since its beginning in Halifax in 1751, has played a major role in the lives of Canadians, and that it will continue doing so.

In the past, exhibitions on the history of printing have taken many forms. Some concentrated on particular themes or periods of time, while others emphasized technological developments. Aesthetic and documentary qualities of illustrations, first productions of early colonial printers and libraries of well-known collectors have all been the subject of exhibitions.

Of all the reasons to own a book, the main one is certainly to use it, either as a reference tool or for its literary qualities. This exhibition shows two aspects of the printed word: the tool of learning and the communication of public information. The first concerns books people owned, used, read and re-read, wrote in, and often passed on to their children or friends. The book became an heirloom. The second concerns the printed object posted for public reading, and which contained timely information designed to be shared by many: the broadside.

Throughout this period, great quantities of books were imported from Europe and the United States through local book dealers or privately. Before Confederation, it was often more profitable for book dealers to import books than to print them. Nevertheless, the books displayed here show that printing in Canada was healthy and its products diverse.

To attempt to summarize the role of printing in the lives of Canadians in a single exhibition is, to say the least, an ambitious undertaking. Limits had to be set, and certain categories of printed objects, worthy of an exhibition of their own, restricted to representative examples. Popular literature was given limited attention, although there are a few books of this type in the Leisure and Literature section. From the second half of the 19th century, newspapers were the most widely read printed material in the country. Only selected examples, designed to show how news travelled, have been included.

The majority of the items exhibited were printed during the 19th century. The purpose is to show the period in which the greatest diversity and change occurred: the beginning of the transformation from colonial printing to mass-market publishing. Obviously the explosive changes in all types of publications which took place during this century could not be adequately reflected in the allocated space.

An attempt has been made to link the items shown to major changes in the economic, political and social life of Canadians. From 1791 to 1850, the population of British North America increased tenfold, mainly due to immigration from the United States and the British Isles. The political structure changed from one involving isolated colonial entities to one of representative government. After 1850, there occurred a gradual shift from a colonial to a continental economy, creating a need for improved transportation by water, by train, and later, by air. The development of manufacturing and retailing  -  and its corollary, advertising  -  and the mechanization of agriculture effected printing during the second half of the 19th century. A public system of education was established, and took over from the private system designed mainly for the upper classes. All these changes had an impact on print and its use.

The items shown are grouped by themes, and the themes, in turn, arranged in a loose chronological sequence reflecting a person's lifetime. The first part of the exhibition contains children's storybooks and textbooks, followed by immigration and transportation literature. This section is designed to represent the beginning of learning for those already in the country, the first glimpse of Canada by the immigrant families, and the tools useful to move about in their new land.

From city directories to trade catalogues, from appeals to women voters to emigration manuals, from rules of the courts to rules of baseball, the second section, by far the largest, shows the role of printing in the home, at work, and at play. These are the printed words used and read in adult life.

The third, and last, section contains items related to religion and health: pre-occupations of a lifetime but increasingly so as the years pass by. A final exhibition case is devoted to the book as an object: cherished, modified, personalized, and, in some cases, saved from destruction.

All the items exhibited are from the collections of the National Library of Canada. An effort was made to record and, in some cases, to identify previous owners of these books, to connect the user and the tool. This exhibition is not only about books; it is, in fact, about people.
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