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The History of the Book in British Columbia:
A State of the Art Review



The early newspapers of British Columbia burst upon the world like the towns they served: flamboyant, rowdy, partisan, sometimes not altogether nice. In the main they proved filmy visions, tissues of dreams as short lived as the mining booms that bred so many of them. Indeed, British Columbia has been called a journalistic cemetery.1

Donald Stainsby’s rather bleak assessment of fortunes of journalism in British Columbia is an apt metaphor for a state of the art review of the history of the book in British Columbia. Careful archaeological digging uncovers a few skeletal remains and a collection of dry bones, fleshless and disjointed. The evidence is incomplete and at times contradictory, and much work will be needed to transform the fragments into a comprehensive portrait.

The majority of published evidence for the history of the book in British Columbia falls into one of four distinct types: amateur histories and reminiscences, short scholarly or semi-scholarly journal articles, contemporary studies of the publishing industry, and brief descriptions of individual publishers and bookstores. Within the broader framework of social history, little scholarly attention has been paid to the role of print culture in British Columbia. Of the various comprehensive histories of the province, only Jean Barman2 and George Woodcock3 attempt to integrate cultural history into the dominant historical metanarratives of frontier, wilderness and development. In George Woodcock’s words It is this stunned hesitation of the voice or eye that explains the prime importance of the explorer in early British Columbia: the land, so strange, so overpowering, had to be described before it could be encompassed by the imagination. 4 For the most part, provincial histories are still dominated by the land and issues of resources and labour, in other words, the issues of a colony in the process of settlement. The intellectual histories of central and eastern Canada do not include British Columbia, and have no real equivalent in B.C.

Scope and limitations

This paper and accompanying bibliography examine the full disciplinary range of the history of the book in British Columbia. Only material specifically relating to British Columbia has been included: general surveys of print history in Canada have been excluded. Only general articles on authorship were included: studies of individual B.C. authors have not been examined. Due to limits of space and time, archival materials, pamphlets, and ephemera have not been included.

The paper betrays an unintended Eurocentric bias. The survey is limited to published materials in English. Almost no literature was located on the history of French or non-English language publishing in the province, and by linguistic necessity, no search was conducted for materials in non-Roman scripts. Specific material on the rich oral traditions of the First Nations peoples of British Columbia were not included, as the search did not extend to anthropological and archaeological indexes, and no significant articles were located within the range of indexes and bibliographies consulted.


The bibliographic search began with an examination of The History of the Book in Canada: A Bibliography.5 A list of key words was created using the headings in the bibliography as a guide.

Several standard bibliographies of British Columbia were checked, including the two volumes of A Bibliography of British Columbia,6 British Columbia in Books,7 and the Vancouver Centennial Bibliography,8 and the electronic index Theses in BC History, 1940-1991. 9

The major tool for the bibliographic control of British Columbia material is the Bibliography of British Columbia, published in each issue of the journal BC Studies. However, as the bibliography is selective rather than exhaustive, and only covers material published after the inception of the journal in 1968, the Canadian Periodical Index was searched in its entirety, from 1929 to date. The search of CPI was supplemented by checking the table of contents of the complete volumes of The British Columbia Historical Quarterly,10 British Columbia Library Quarterly,11 and The British Columbia Historical News12. These Canadian sources were further expanded by searching America, History and Life, Dissertations Abstract International and the MLA International Bibliography.

Finally, the catalogues of the libraries of the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, and the Vancouver Public Library were searched.

Description and Analysis of Subject Areas

In the following sections, the full bibliographic information on authors and titles referred to in the text can be found in the appended bibliography.


Several significant articles locate B.C. writing in a variety of thematic contexts, and articulate the characteristics that distinguish it from writing produced elsewhere in Canada. Charles Lillard’s review article is a guide to British Columbia’s literary history, from early imprints to the mid 1970s, focusing primarily on literature published in the 1960s and 70s. Lillard identifies various groups of poets and writers, their stylistic allegiance, differences and disputes, and describes the proliferation of small presses and journals that published their works. He includes a selective bibliography in a variety of genres, including anthologies, fiction, drama, and poetry.

The uniqueness of BC writing is Allan Pritchard’s central focus. He argues that the literary themes of central Canada, as theorised by Margaret Atwood in Survival13 are not applicable to B.C. literature, which focuses not on survival but integration with the environment, not on leaving home but searching for home, not on the cruelty of families but the support of families. In Pritchard’s words, the writers of British Columbia have been much more inclined to praise than curse the creation, and there has been more of celebration than of survival in the literature (p. 108). Home is also the dominant metaphor in George Bowering s article on B.C. novels, in which he argues that emigrants to the province in B.C. fiction are restless seekers of a new way to make a home west of the Rockies (p. 28).

William New explores a variety of thematic issues in his 1985 review. Like Pritchard and Bowering, New identifies the significant role that the landscape, and metaphors of home and belonging play in the literature. His discussion of trickster figures stretches from Coyote of Nlha7kapmx tradition to the fiction of Jack Hodgins.

Place and space form the subject of two anthologies of current B.C. writing. In British Columbia: Visions of the Promised Land, B.C. authors and artists reflect on why they live where they do, and how their environment shapes their work. Home and landscape form the central theme of the essays, as the editor, Brenda Lea White identifies, In British Columbia, when one looks up from difficult questions, they re often, and peacefully, reduced to nothing by the immanence of the surrounding landscape (p. vii).

Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City, edited by Paul Delany, includes essays that explore the relationship between literature, art and the city: George Bowering on postmodern poetry, Jeff Derksen on place and the position of the subject in Vancouver writing, Paul Delany on place in William Gibson’s speculative fiction, and Robert Linsley on landscape and literature in B.C. art. The geography of writing is also the subject of Alan Twigg’s eclectic guidebook to Vancouver’s literary landmarks., in which everything from Margaret Atwood s residence while a sessional lecturer at UBC to the first location of Harbour Publishing is located and described.

Calligraphy, Illustration, and the Book Arts

The most fruitful source of information on the book arts in British Columbia is the journal published by the Alcuin Society. Amphora is a quarterly journal, published since 1968, that occasionally features articles on British Columbia book collectors, calligraphers, typographers, paper makers, illustrators, printers, and bookbinders. As well, the Society sponsored a major exhibition of the book arts in 1986. The catalogue that was produced for that exhibit, From Hand to Hand, contains useful brief essays on printing and publishing; bookbinding; calligraphy; papermaking; and typography and type design, and representative samples of the works exhibited in each category.

Bookstores and Booksellers

Several short articles on antiquarian bookselling in Vancouver are based on personal reminiscences and provide evidence of the history of the book trade in the region. Francis Dickie looks at notable booksellers, and collectors, in the pre-World War Two period. Geoff Spencer expands the geographical focus of his article to include booksellers throughout the Pacific Northwest. William Hoffer’s article includes highlights of his career as an antiquarian bookseller.

The other articles in this section of the bibliography have appeared in the trade journal Quill and Quire, and briefly describe the focus and activities of a variety of bookstores throughout the province.

Intellectual and Cultural History

Despite the overall lack of interest in intellectual and cultural history by the province’s historians, several articles have been published that address the place of literature and culture in the historiography of British Columbia. Douglas Cole argues that B.C.’s historical writing has been dominated by the themes of exploration, discovery, and the quest for identity and home, that is, a sense of belonging and context. For Cole, the isolation and marginalisation of B.C. within the larger patterns of Canadian history results, in part, from the inability to fit the province into patterns familiar to central Canada.

Sheryl Salloum’s article on the Vancouver photographer John Vanderpant traces the development of a literary and artistic salon, and ties cultural activity to broader social patterns within Vancouver in the early decades of this century. The subject of cultural activities and associations was the focus of Alfred Ian Hunt’s Ph.D. dissertation on mutual enlightenment in early Vancouver.

Institutions, Libraries, and Librarianship


The sole article on the history of archives is Terry Eastwood’s exploration of the development of the provincial archives in Victoria. The article focuses on the contribution of the first two provincial archivists, R.E. Gosnell and E.O.S. Scholefield to the formation of the archives within the Legislative Library.


The history of libraries in the province has been the almost exclusive preserve of amateur historians, primarily librarians researching the history of a particular institution with which they are connected, for readers within the library community, or to celebrate a significant anniversary. Few histories have moved beyond the institutional setting to examine libraries within their broader social and cultural context.

Nonetheless, many of the library histories contain useful information on patterns of reading, and the distribution of print materials. Marjorie Holmes 1959 history of public library service in B.C., and the 1986 volume of historical profiles of public libraries, edited by Alan Woodland and Ellen Heaney are the most comprehensive and detailed accounts of provincial library history. This historical information can be supplemented by the lively memoirs of Charles Keith Morison, onetime superintendent of the Public Library Commission, who travelled throughout the province visiting libraries in remote communities.

Less attention has been paid to the careers of individual librarians and library leaders. However, the collected interviews with library pioneers by Marion Gilroy and Samuel Rothstein is a key source. Their work is particularly helpful on the career of Helen Gordon Stewart, who oversaw the creation of a regional library system, funded by the Carnegie corporation, that proved a model for rural regional library development throughout the Commonwealth.

Mechanics’ institutes, clubs, associations, and adult education

Very little significant work has been done on the history of mechanics institutes and subscription libraries, apart from the work of Gordon Selman, a pioneer in the history of adult education in the province. His article on adult education in the Cariboo gold rush town of Barkerville provides the only information about the distribution of print material outside the main centres of population in the nineteenth century. Two articles, by Jacqueline Hooper and Elizabeth Walker, examine the role of Francis Bursill, a deeply eccentric journalist and book collector in the formation of cultural activities in Vancouver, and complement the work of Alfred Ian Hunt on the cultural history of the city

Periodicals, Newspapers, and Journalism

The history of newspapers in the province has focused primarily on the personalities of journalists and newspaper owners. Typical of this writing is D.A. McGregor’s account of the development of newspapers in Vancouver, that draws heavily on personal reminiscences. Donald Stainsby focuses on early newspapers and newspapermen, emphasising the colourful and the controversial. Marjory Lang and Linda Hale’s exploration of the careers of women reporters and journalists in Vancouver is a counterbalance to the previous exclusion of women from the historical record, and locates their activities within the emerging class structure in the new city.

Two articles deal with specialised newspaper history. Wilf Chappell’s article on the Kamloops Wawa examines the use of Duployan shorthand in the printing of a Chinook jargon newspaper by an Oblate missionary in nineteenth century British Columbia. J. Donald Wilson’s brief history of the Aika Finnish language newspaper is one of the few examinations of non-English language printing in the province.

The bibliography of B.C. literary and alternative periodicals has received some attention. Marilyn Meister s narrative bibliography of little magazines identifies two distinct types of publication: the magazine that grows out of the shared interests of a movement, or group of writers, and what she calls the institutional magazine or professional quarterly. Meister identifies the genealogy of many of the province’s little magazines of the 1950s and 1960s, and can be used in conjunction with the articles on B.C. writers and authorship. Ruel Smith’s article on the alternative press is primarily a bibliography of publications in a variety of formats, including newspapers, journals, leaflets, etc.

Printing and Typography

The few brief histories of printing in the province have concentrated for the most part on the nineteenth century. Douglas McMurtrie, Basil Stuart-Stubbs, and Glennis Zilm have all written on the small Larilleux handpress brought to Fort Victoria around 1852 for the use of Bishop Modeste Demers. Unfortunately, Stuart-Stubbs and Zilm both confuse the origin of the press, stating incorrectly that it was sent to the Roman Catholic bishop by the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, rather than the Roman Catholic Society for the Propagation of the Faith. A similar confusion about the date for the arrival of the press seems to have occurred because it was several years before the press was used in the production of the Vancouver Island Gazette, one of the first newspapers printed in the colony.

The subtitle of Burt Campbell’s article, Reminiscences of Fifty Years in the Printing Trade, accurately summarises the nature of the article. Patrick Wolfe’s biography of the early printer John Houston places his subject within the history of early newspapers in the province.

More contemporary writers have focused attention on the craft and design aspects of printing. Louis Grenby s 1961 article on printing in the province is both a summary of the history, a rejection of the status quo and a passionate plea for increased appreciation of fine printing, a plea that is echoed in Frank Davey’s description of the Morriss Press in Victoria. Both articles emphasise the degree to which fine printing was a rarity in the early 1960s in B.C., lauding Morriss Press for innovation in the face of indifference. This concern for quality is also the emphasis of Stuart Isto s interview with two Vancouver typographers, Jim Rimmer and Gerald Giampa.

Publishers and Small Presses

Writing on the province’s small presseshas appeared only sporadically, perhaps reflecting the transitory nature of many of the presses. Marya Fiamengo’s 1964 article discusses Klanak Press and Periwinkle Press, and briefly reviews some of the poetry they published. Crispin and Jan Elsted’s Barbarian Press is one of the longest established handpress publishers in B.C., and their history and bibliography of the press is an exquisite, and now rare, collector s item.

Very brief articles in Quill and Quire have traced the growth of individual trade publishers in B.C. For example, articles by Hamish Cameron and V. Thompson trace the growth of the regional publishers J.J. Douglas into Douglas and McIntyre, a publisher with a national presence. Similar attention has also been given to the development of smaller literary publishers like Sono Nis and Talonbooks. The growth of the successful non-fiction publisher, Self Counsel Press has attracted attention not only in Quill and Quire, but in business magazines like BC Business.


The subject of publishing in British Columbia neatly divides between past and present. There has been significant bibliographic attention paid to early B.C. imprints, from early checklists of Crown Colony imprints, published in the British Columbia Historical Quarterly, through W. Kaye Lamb and Michael R. Booth s description of a single publication, Sawney’s Letters, and surveys of early trade book publishing by George Woodcock and Glennis Zilm. Zilm also covers early printing, although, as noted above, some factual errors mar the work. The extreme scarcity of many of the province’s early imprints make the checklists and bibliographies vital, as in some cases a single copy of a title has survived.

Jane Fredeman’s survey of contemporary book publishing is a very useful overview, summarising information on individual publishers, and identifying trends. Fredeman argues that BC publishing in the last thirty years has expanded by pursuing specific regional interests at the same time that a national presence has been sought in the areas of general interest non-fiction and literature.

Fredeman’s article forms a companion to the discussion of individual publishers and small presses, and is a helpful introduction to some of the issues raised by the various surveys and reports generated for the publishing industry in the province. The 1987 Review of the Book Publishing Industry of British Columbia by the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia profiles the industry. The report marshals statistics in support of recommendations for provincial investment in capital development projects, research and development, and other programmes to strengthen and expand the industry. The 1989 report, Book Publishing in British Columbia was carried out by the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing, under the supervision of Roland Lorimer. The report is a comprehensive overview of the provincial and national publishing industries, and surveys the various government programmes that support publishing activities. The Lorimer report was followed in 1993 by Publishing on the Edge, prepared for the Association of Book Publishers of BC by Roy McSkimming, which updated the statistics, and attempted to measure the importance of the Block Funding Program, instituted by the province in 1990.

School textbooks

Perhaps because the absence of local textbook publishers meant that Ontario texts were widely adopted for use in B.C. schools, little scholarship has been published that focuses on the history of school texts, with the notable exception of an article by Harro Van Brummelen. More controversial is Tim Stanley’s article on racism and imperialism, which looks at the ways in which texts published elsewhere reflected, contradicted, and reinforced essentialised theories of racial difference in the provincial curriculum.

Areas for further study

As the previous section made clear, there is need for critical scholarship in all aspects of the history of the book in British Columbia. In most areas, even the basic research is lacking. For example, no literature was identified on the history of paper making in the province, or the history of bookbinding. The history of the distribution of the printed word is limited to a very few brief articles on antiquarian bookselling, and hints gleaned from the histories of libraries. In other cases, chronologies are unclear or disputed, and published literature consists of reminiscences and limited explorations of a single institution. As a result, the history of print culture remains isolated from the mainstream provincial histories. Critical analysis is needed in order to contextualise the fragmentary evidence within the broader field of social and cultural history.

There is, however, a wealth of archival materials that could support research. At Simon Fraser University, the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing has created the Canadian Publishers’ Records Database (CPRD), which provides access to over twelve hundred archival collections beginning before 1980 which relate to the history of secular English-language book publishing in Canada. It includes records of publishing companies, authors, editors, and organizations. Information on the location of records, their scope, and an administrative history is included in the database. A search of the CPRD, accessible through the Simon Fraser University online library catalogue, located one hundred and eighty seven archival collections related to British Columbia. Many of the archival collections are housed in the University of British Columbia Library’s Special Collections division. Other significant collections are located at the City of Vancouver Archives and the British Columbia Archives in Victoria.

Gail Edwards