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U of T library exhibition celebrates Canadian small presses

Rare-books libraries and special collections aren’t just about old books, says John Shoesmith, outreach librarian at University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, the oldest repository of its kind in Canada. They are about fine books produced in small quantities, books that have lasting value.

Shoesmith is the curator of the library’s new exhibition, A Death Greatly Exaggerated: Canada’s Thriving Small and Fine Press, celebrating the craft of the printed book and the small presses that keep the art form alive. Included in the show is Margaret Atwood’s first chapbook, Double Persephone, produced and published with Hawkshead Press in 1961, and Le demi-dieu, an obscure 1930s French imprint bound in 2011 by young Toronto bookbinder Robert Wu.

Q&Q spoke to Shoesmith about the show.

What inspired this exhibition? The basic idea started six years ago at the University of Toronto when I was taking a rare-books class. I was studying archival papers, and I became interested in the personal papers of writers like Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen, because we have their papers here at the Fisher.

So many writers have gotten their start over the years publishing with small presses, including Atwood. Her very first book is here, Double Persephone. She produced it in 1961, sold just over 200 copies at $0.50, and now this book is probably valued around $3,000. It marks the fact that every writer has humble beginnings.

What was the first material you decided to include? Part of it was flying by the seat of my pants, sitting in our reading room and going through 500 books, deciding what would look nice in the exhibit, and what is significant in terms of telling a story about the small press.

Which press stands out to you? Barbarian Press out in Mission, B.C. “ using the term barbarian was sort of ironic because they make such beautiful books. Barbarian are probably the highest craftspeople. We have their archival papers that relate specifically to the creation of Shakespeare’s least-known work, The Play of Pericles. That’s probably my favourite item because you get to see the development.

Have you observed a distinct aesthetic or intellectual tradition in Canada? I would argue that the emergence of what we now consider the CanLit canon really started to come out of the small presses in the 1940s and ’50s, from publications like First Statement or Contact Press, a very influential publishing firm started by three poets, Raymond Souster, Irving Layton, and Louis Dudek. Leonard Cohen’s very first book was published by Contact Press.

It was hard for a Canadian writer to gain a foothold in the Canadian market. That is what it was about early on, and small presses are still doing that duty.

What do you see as the future for Canada’s small presses? 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.

The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is open to the public Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A Death Greatly Exaggerated closes on Sept. 9 with a small-press fair.

This interview has been edited and condensed.