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29.10.2012 in Research Bookmark and Share

Librarian awarded fellowship to explore the role of Sunday schools in spreading literacy

Associate Librarian of Humanities and Religion, Scott McLaren, has been awarded a prestigious Botein Fellowship by the American Antiquarian Society (AAS). McLaren will spend the month of November at the AAS in Worcester Massachusetts extending research he began in his dissertation on early Upper Canadian religious print culture. Specifically, McLaren wants to deepen his understanding of the role Upper Canadian Sunday schools played in spreading literacy across the colony.

Receiving  the Botein Fellowship for research in the history of the book in American culture will grant McLaren access to the AAS library that houses approximately two-thirds of all American publications produced between 1640 and Scott McLaren head shot1876.

Scott McLaren

Access to America’s earliest publications may seem counterintuitive to a study of Upper Canadian Sunday schools, but McLaren knows this literature will have a profound influence on his research. “Sunday school libraries in Upper Canada started to take shape in the 1820s and in many ways they functioned as the colony’s first ‘public’ libraries, especially for those living outside of urban regions,” McLaren explains. “However, many of these schools followed American models and imported all their books from New York.” For these reasons, Sunday school libraries functioned as transnational centres for literacy across the Upper Canadian backwoods.

Following the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 it became especially problematic for Upper Canadian Sunday Schools to form libraries around American texts. These books presented a version of history that Canadian political elites were not comfortable with. In the 1840s the colony’s chief superintendent of education, Egerton Ryerson, banned the use of American textbooks and teachers in Canadian schools entirely.

What McLaren is most excited about is the opportunity to pore over literature that was deemed insidious enough to be prohibited by Canadian politicians. “I want to use my time at AAS to read through these ‘subversive’ books and see what people were reading in 1822-1840 – particularly because these texts helped to shape the landscape of early Canadian print culture,” McLaren explains.

These publications will inform a number of scholarly articles as well as McLaren’s book tentatively titled A Reading People: Print Culture and the Methodist Struggle for Social Respectability in Upper Canada, 1800-1850.

“Scott is a great scholar who captures our imagination and certainly demonstrates book history is not boring,” says Cynthia Archer, University Librarian. “How many of us knew Sunday Schools and public libraries in Canada are related and that Ryerson banned American textbooks for use in the classroom?”

The AAS was established in 1812 when the United States was at war with Britain. The founder, Isaac Thomas, wanted to preserve all records that served to inform the American identity outside of Britain’s governance. The AAS also boasts one of the world’s largest collections of early Canadian publications.

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