The six sections of the exhibition explore different types of print matter as well as the social groups that interacted with this material. The exhibit begins with a brief look at book culture, examining the differences and similarities between bibliophilia and bibliomania. For every advocate of a new type of printed material, there were critics who either proposed different uses or opposed it entirely. Despite the various benefits a reader gained from interacting with print, the same material was often accused of lowering the standard of social mores.
The first part of the exhibition focuses on positive and negative interactions with specific forms of print. Bibliophilia and the craze of collecting served the valuable purpose of increasing the circulation of books in the public sphere. Though the greatest libraries belonged to the aristocracy, the practice of collecting was not restricted to the rich. Middle class professionals and intellectuals also participated, often finding themselves in debt and (according to their critics) consumed with madness as their love of books turned into an unhealthy obsession. Books were not the only forms of printed matter to have disquieting effects. The shift from specie to paper money as the principal form of currency was met with a dark cloud of debate. Critics distrusted the new currency for its seeming ephemerality and the ease with which it could be counterfeited. As whist and other forms of gaming grew in popularity, playing cards became ubiquitous. In some circumstances, they were even used as money when coins and printed notes were in short supply. Illustrations within the cards were also often used to convey historical, mathematical, or other lessons. Despite this, moralists warned of gaming’s potentially fatal consequences.
The second part of the exhibition examines the forms of interaction with print among the working class, women, and children. As new technologies in the mechanization of print led to the greater availability of cheap printed material, these groups, including many who were newly literate, began to develop their own modes of interacting with print. Each of these sections seeks to display a tension between the benefits of increased access to printed matter and the social anxieties it fostered. The idea that the working class could be controlled either by limiting their access to reading material or by prescribing the texts they read can be seen through the evangelical publishers’ attempts to circulate cheap religious tracts. The same type of oversight was suggested regarding the material made available to women; however, in many cases, women escaped this control. As conceptions of childhood and education evolved and were debated, different forms of literature became available for the expanding market of children’s books.
“People in the World of Print” was curated by Ersy Contogouris (PhD candidate at Université de Montréal) and Jane Coleman Harbison (masters student at McGill University). Professors Tom Mole and Nikola Von Merveldt supervised the project. The items shown here were displayed for three weeks in March 2011 in the Blackader-Lauterman library at McGill University.