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Launching Imprinting Canada: The McGraw-Hill Ryerson Press Collection


This fall, the Library celebrated the launch of
Imprinting Canada: The McGraw-Hill Ryerson Press Collectionan online exhibit highlighting the Library’s largest single gift-in-kind donation to date.

The Ryerson Press Collection arrived at the University Library towards the end of 2016. It includes nearly 3000 books published between 1862 and 1970, and 2000 documents including letters and author contracts, all from what was once the largest publisher in Canada.

The publishing company, originally founded in 1829, evolved into the Methodist Book and Publishing House, and eventually became Ryerson Press in 1919. In 1920, Lorne Pierce joined the firm as literary advisor, and was soon promoted to general editor–a role he remained in for another 38 years. During his tenure, Pierce embarked on an ambitious cultural publishing program to promote Canadian literature, history and art. 

In 1970, the press was sold to McGraw-Hill Canada, and became known as McGraw-Hill Ryerson. While the company had roots in publishing religious materials and trade books, it also launched the careers of a number of notable Canadian authors, poets and illustrators. Among the collection are first editions of Alice Munro’s first book, Dance of the Happy Shades, and works by Canadian poets such as A.M. Klein, Earle Birney, Miriam Waddington and Al Purdy, as well as book illustrations by several members of the Group of Seven.

Shortly after the collection arrived at the Ryerson Library, three book historians took note of the opportunities presented by the donation. Eager to promote its research capacity, Ryerson Librarian Val Lem, Professor Ruth Panofsky, Department of English at Ryerson, and Dr. Janet Friskney, Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies at York University, set out to secure a SSHRC Connections Grant to create an online exhibit of the collection. Expressing interest in the project, Ryerson Librarian, Sally Wilson,  Professor Art Seto, School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson, and former Executive Vice President of McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Clive Powell, also joined the team.

Their efforts paid off and in November 2017 they were awarded the SSHRC grant. Ryerson Library also provided in-kind support for the project, and some additional funds were granted by the Faculty of Arts and an external donor. 

“The funding allowed us to hire a graphic communications intern to help create the website images. As well, graduate English students wrote case studies, and external scholars were recruited to contribute chapters, essays or case studies in their areas of expertise,” said Lem. 

The project also provided opportunities for undergraduate students to work with and study the collection. “Undergraduate students registered in the graphics communication course The Art of the Book were encouraged to write essays on aspects of the collection,” notes Lem, adding that “four of the papers were modified for inclusion in the website.” 

Two years later, after all contributions and graphic work was complete, the exhibit launched in October 2019. The website, designed to replicate the format of a book, can be explored through chapters, essays, and case studies each highlighting different sections of the collection. The project shines a spotlight on the significance of the collection, which Lem notes “will continue to inspire new research in the years ahead.”

Echoing Lem, regarding the scholarly importance of the collection, Chief Librarian, Carol Shepstone adds, “the McGraw-Hill Ryerson Press Collection provides our students and faculty with a rich source of academic research materials, and its long history offers insights into many aspects of Canadian studies in the making. There is endless potential for fascinating projects by a broad range of scholars.”