July 3, 2013

Rare book library celebrates Canada’s small presses


In the face of the rise of digital publishing, a librarian at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is holding an exhibition that celebrates the book as a physical object, specifically looking at independent publishers in Canada for his inspiration. Outreach librarian John Shoesmith spoke to Quill & Quire’s Emma Renda about the exhibition and the statement he hopes to make with it.

Shoesmith has titled the exhibition “A Death Greatly Exaggerated,” a nod to Mark Twain and response from Shoesmith to the notion that ebooks have sounded the death knell for printed ones. In a video (see below) on the Fisher Library’s website, he traces the history of independent publishing in Canada back to the turn of the 20th century, with what he refers to as the “small press movement” accelerating after World War II. In the exhibition, though, he focuses on contemporary works, dating back no later than 2000. “What I wanted to do,” Shoesmith explains, “was celebrate the book, celebrate the printed book as it’s produced today by the Canadian small and fine press.” It was by culling from hundreds of works to find the ones he wanted to display, in fact, that his faith in the physical book was reaffirmed.

One of the books on display as part of “A Death Greatly Exaggerated” is Margaret Atwood’s first book, Double Persephone, which Shoesmith mentions to Quill & Quire as an example of the works that led him to create the exhibition. He told the literary magazine that he was inspired by Atwood and others like her who started from humble beginnings; Double Persephone was first published in 1961 by Hawkshead Press and only sold some 200 copies at 50 cents apiece, but a copy is now valued at around $3,000.

Shoesmith is optimistic about the future of small publishers, saying, “These guys love what they’re doing, and we are going to continue to collect this stuff at the Fisher. We want to be the main repository for small presses in Canada. It will tell a good story 50 years from now about the fact that people were still making beautiful books, and I predict that 50 years from now they’ll still be doing that.”

You can see the video that he made about the exhibition here:

It’s open now at the Fisher Library in Toronto, and will run through August 30.


Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.