Linking Two Marshall McLuhan Archives in Toronto & Ottawa Virtually


Library and Archives Canada building in Ottawa

McLuhan read widely, often recording his thoughts on what he read in the margins and endpapers of his books. He also corresponded with a global intellectual and social network about his reading; sometimes, he would recommend a particular book, or simply mention one in passing.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds McLuhan’s archives, while the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto (UTL) holds his personal research library. Although the two collections are now separate entities held by different institutions, the division between them is artificial: McLuhan originally kept them together in his office at the University of Toronto and his private residence, and they developed in conjunction with each other over the course of his life.

This page virtually reconnects these now physically separate collections.  Showing connections between McLuhan’s letters and annotations in his books provides new insight into the progression of his ideas from notes he wrote hastily as he read, to the polished final products presented in his published works.

Letters and Books

Below are selected pages from books in the McLuhan research library collection showing his handwritten annotations. Alongside these pages are letters from the archives in which he discusses these same books. Reading the letters and annotations together reveals his creative process, and illustrates the interconnected nature of the library and the archives.

James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses

James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses is Frank Budgen’s memoir of the time he spent with Joyce in Zurich while Joyce was writing Ulysses. The insight Budgen provides into Joyce’s use of sound and visual imagery in Ulysses influenced McLuhan’s developing ideas of visual and acoustic space.  In this letter to academic Michael Wolff, McLuhan refers to the value of Budgen’s book for his work on Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting, co-written with artist Harley Parker.

Note: To view images of the actual documents listed in all of the bulleted headings below that were linked between the two archives, go to the source document for this posting at the link at the end below.

  • Correspondence on James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses
  • Notes made in the book James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses

Preface to Plato

McLuhan confided his admiration for classicist Eric Havelock’s book Preface to Plato to Michael Wolff in the same 1964 letter in which he discussed James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses.  Havelock’s interpretation of the clash of oral and written cultures in ancient Athens still resonated with McLuhan when he wrote to the author in 1970.  McLuhan cited Preface to Plato both in the revised edition of Understanding Media and in From Cliché to Archetype.

  • Correspondence on Preface to Plato
  • Notes made in the book Preface to Plato

The Paper Economy

McLuhan recommended that editor and publisher William Jovanovich read social critic David T. Bazelon’s The Paper Economy for a collaborative project they had planned on the future of publishing.  In McLuhan’s interpretation, paper money was the “emperor’s old clothes” and electric circuitry was his “new clothes” (punned in his annotations in the book as old and new “close”).

  • Correspondence on The Paper Economy
  • Notes made in the book The Paper Economy

The Art of Memory

Recommending The Art of Memory by historian of the Renaissance Frances Amelia Yates to Jovanovich in relation to their collaborative project, McLuhan enthused that Yates “reopened some missing vistas in the history of western culture.” In particular, her discussion of Dante’s Inferno as a memory system, or memory theatre, sparked his imagination. The planned collaboration between McLuhan and Jovanovich, which they had provisionally entitled The Future of the Book, never materialized.

  • Correspondence on The Art of Memory
  • Notes made in the book The Art of Memory

Machina ex Deo

In an essay in the collection Machina ex Deo, historian Lynn White explored the spiritual transition of the western world from paganism to Christianity which allowed humanity to move from seeing itself as a part of nature to being able to exploit nature.  In this letter to anthropologist Edward Hall, McLuhan refers to White’s connection of the spread of Christian optimism with the technical innovation of the modern era.  He also drew upon White’s ideas in War and Peace in the Global Village, co-written with Quentin Fiore.

  • Correspondence on Machina ex Deo
  • Notes made in the book Machina ex Deo

The Step to Man

McLuhan recommended The Step to Man, published by the physicist John R. Platt in 1966, to future Nobel-prize winning scientist John Polanyi in 1974, for its insight on the history and philosophy of science. He remarked to Polanyi that he felt his own approach resembled scientific experimentation.

  • Correspondence on The Step to Man
  • Notes made in the book The Step to Man
Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

Go to the source document to see images of the linked document:

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