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By Rob Fisher, Senior Archivist, Archives Branch

“Le medium est le message” [the medium is the message] poster, 1970. Credit: Université de Montréal, Division de la gestion des documents et des archives.

The Marshall McLuhan archive attracts researchers from around the world to the reading room of Library and Archives Canada. They are drawn by the desire to understand the inspiration and ideas of the Canadian “prophet” of the digital age who foretold the impact of electronic media and coined phrases like “the global village,” “the medium is the message,” and “surfing” for information. The McLuhan archive at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has now attracted another form of international attention: UNESCO recognized its global significance in 2017 by inscribing his personal archive and library in the Memory of the World Register!

Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980) was a Professor of English at the University of Toronto but is best known as a cultural theorist and public intellectual. The McLuhan archive and library is one of only six Canadian entries in the prestigious UNESCO register, and the first documentary heritage to be inscribed from LAC’s collection. LAC and the University of Toronto Libraries, which holds McLuhan’s personal library, made the joint submission to the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme. Founded in 1992 to promote and protect the world’s documentary heritage through preservation and access, the Memory of the World Programme includes in its register only those documentary collections that meet its strict criteria of “world significance and outstanding universal value.”note2

The Memory of the World Register ranges from historical treasures like the Magna Carta and the Bayeux Tapestry, to the papers of Hans Christian Andersen, Louis Pasteur and Winston Churchill, among others. The inclusion of Marshall McLuhan is a signal honour for LAC, and for Canada. Guy Berthiaume, the Librarian and Archivist of Canada, remarked, “This recognition from UNESCO is very fitting, because while we are very proud that this great thinker was Canadian, his enduring legacy also unquestionably extends to all of humanity.”

McLuhan’s groundbreaking insights in books like The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964) revolutionized our understanding of how media, from the printing press to electronic media, have shaped the world today. His provocative and disruptive ideas, from the “global village” to “hot” and “cool” media, ushered in new disciplines of inquiry in communications theory and media ecology. Though his name is synonymous with the 1960s, the emergence and spread of the Internet and the World Wide Web in the 1990s revealed the enduring relevance of his insights into the transformative effect of media. Worldwide interest in McLuhan has undergone a renaissance since 2000, accentuated by a rising tempo of research and publications about his life and work, including dozens of conferences and events in 2011 to mark the centennial of his birth.

The archive might not have ended up in Canada. After McLuhan’s death in 1980, several American university archives expressed interest in purchasing the archive from his estate. Canadian archival institutions could not match their offers, but thanks to special funding made available by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, LAC purchased the McLuhan archive in 1984. The sale was for less than the rumoured offers from the United States, but the McLuhan family wished to keep his archive in Canada.

The McLuhan archive at LAC holds 43 metres of textual records, 375 photographs, 275 posters and prints, 134 audiovisual recordings, and 5 objects. His manuscripts series, comprising 17 metres of drafts, research notes and resource material for his books, articles and other writings, is among the most heavily consulted. McLuhan’s ideas take shape from their first inspiration in handwritten notes and then evolve through manuscript drafts into printed text. His extensive personal correspondence also reveals his family life, formative influences and exchange of ideas with other influential figures. The correspondence includes letters from Pierre Trudeau, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, Edmund Carpenter, Robertson Davies, Sheila Watson, William Jovanovich, Buckminster Fuller, Glenn Gould, Yousuf Karsh, Walter Ong and Hugh Kenner, among others.

Complementing the archive at LAC, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto holds over 6,000 publications from McLuhan’s personal library. McLuhan drew inspiration from his voracious reading, filling the margins and endpapers with annotations to capture ideas in the moment. To celebrate the nomination to the Memory of the World Register, LAC and the University of Toronto Libraries have created a web exhibition, “Virtually Reconnecting Marshall McLuhan’s Archives and Library.” This web exhibition brings together McLuhan’s annotations in books from the library with his letters from the archives discussing these books (he often sent these letters to the authors of the books). Reading inspired McLuhan and led to an exchange of ideas with other scholars. The books and letters in this web exhibition were selected because they reveal the interplay between the library and the archives. Reconstructing the links between these physically separate collections provides new insight into the progression of McLuhan’s thinking.note3

The inclusion of the McLuhan archive and library in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register is an enduring testament to how one Canadian profoundly changed the world. The honour may also be seen as acknowledging LAC’s commitment to preserve and make accessible his archival legacy for future generations.

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