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Rediscovering the Book

The Joseph Sable Centre for 19th Century French Studies, a secluded antiquarian library in St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto, is the birthplace of a progressive new program of studies honouring the history and significance of printing.

The library houses a bequest of 20,000 rare volumes from Basilian priest Father Joseph Sabli and perhaps the world's best collection of the works and letters of France's superstar novelist Emile Zola (b. 1840). No browsing is allowed in this one-of-a-kind archive, where visitors like me ring a buzzer to gain entry and rely on qualified staff to fetch them the titles they're after. Surrounded by these literary treasures is where I met with Mark McGowan, principal of the 152-year-old College, and program co-ordinator Dorothy Speirs, to discuss their newest academic adventure called the Book and Media Studies Program.

"The Book and Media Studies Program began in 2002, based on a very new idea that was hatched in this library," says McGowan. "After I became principalelect, I asked professor Yannick Portebois, a book history specialist with the Department of French Studies, what she'd like to see at St. Mikes. She said that while there were graduate programs in her field, there was nothing for undergraduates. So we have created the first undergraduate book history and print culture program in North America."

The program gives students-some as young as first-year 17-year-olds-an understanding of the importance of printing, books and reading in world cultures past and present.

Portebois co-teaches its single mandatory foundation course, "Books and Readers," where, besides covering such topics as the development of the printing press, copyright and best-sellers, she takes students to visit the university's various rare book collections to view antique printing samples first hand.

These renowned collections include the Robertson Davies Library, the Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies Library, and the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. "The students realize how privileged they are to be in a place like the university where they have access to all these resources that make the program a unique experience for them," says Speirs.

They also have opportunities to view the functioning 19th-century presses in U of T's Massey College and follow the evolution of a book from its publishinghouse beginnings through to retail sale, including a tour of nearby Coach House Press to see how a modern-day book printer operates.

Of such student tours, Stan Bevington, one of Coach House's founders, said later in a telephone conversation: "The kids get their eyes opened. They sparkle in a way that's unbelievable as the secrets of a whole new world are being revealed."

Students choose additional courses in the Book and Media Studies Program from among some 30 elective subjects in the program, taught by a diversity of experts from departments all over the campus. These optional courses deal with everything from comic books and illustration to practical studios for hands-on printmaking to advertising, non-print media, and popular culture. Still in its embryonic stages, the program's content is supervised by an advisory committee of specialists from U of T's Faculty of Information Studies (formerly Library Science) and its departments of English, Italian Studies and French Studies. Collectively, they issue a standing invitation to faculty for proposals for new courses and revise the program's course selection annually.

McGowan says the Book and Media Studies Program was almost an instant hit. At this time last year, in just its first year of operation, 16 students committed themselves to completing the program's full course of study. Although this year's statistics won't be available until November, he and Speirs estimate the number has now doubled to at least 33.

And enrollments for individual courses in the program have also started to go through the roof, he says. The courses attract students who are majors in all sorts of subjects, even those outside the literary fields, including Finance, Chemistry, Geography, and Urban Studies. "Because we can only admit so many students to the rare book collections at a time, we have to place a limit on class sizes. If we didn't have these limits, we estimate that enrollments for certain courses could easily reach 200," says McGowan.

"There is a great hunger for what this program is trying to offer-the study of print history and the development of media in a serious academic manner." And contrary to popular rumour, St Mikes' newest program of study proves that printing is not a dying force but a source of wonder for a whole new generation.

Victoria Gaitskell is a Toronto-area writer and a regular contributor to Canadian Printer. If you have an interesting print-related story to tell, contact Victoria at

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Rediscovering the Book,
by Victoria Gaitskell

Our sincere thanks to Canadian Printer Magazine for their kind permission in allowing us to reprint this article which originally appeared in their OCTOBER/NOVEMBER, 2004 issue.