In 19th-century British North America the tasks of daily survival were all-consuming, leaving little time for cultural pursuits. The vastness of the land and the inhospitable terrain were formidable impediments to the movements of people, goods, and ideas, and travel was slow. Before 1850 a newspaper sent by steamship from London (England) might reach London (Ontario) in six weeks. But what could it tell its readers about Canada? In the 1750s Halifax brought the country into the information age with the establishment of the first press, the first indigenous newspaper, the first published advertisement, the first post office, and the first bookstore. While ships, canoes, and stagecoaches could move newspapers and books between the colonies, rapid duplication of the Halifax experience throughout British North America showed there was no substitute for a local press, a local bookstore, and a reading room or library.
Early colonial newspapers benefited financially but suffered intellectually from their dependence on government or religious patronage. Invariably the most independent newspapers were those based in major urban centres, where there was a large market. As the century advanced, published political and economic opinion became more sophisticated as the relationships between advertising and circulation strengthened. But the partisan preoccupations of mid-century continued. Printer, publisher, editor, and owner were often united in one person, serving Canadians the printed fare they most loved, the tangle of contentious debate.
The largest and most powerful publishing Operation in Canada in the 19th century was the Methodist Book Room in Toronto, originally established in 1829 to produce a church newspaper, the influential Christian Guardian. Separated from the newspaper in 1843, the Book Room broadened its publishing list to include a more eclectic mix of text and trade books. After 1879 its new director, William Briggs, nurtured a stable of well-respected Canadian authors and began an agency to serve several prominent British and American publishers. Among those apprenticed in the Book Room were Thomas Allen, John McClelland, and George Stewart, who would leave to create their own publishing companies.
The first public libraries in Canada, here termed 'collective libraries,' were privately organized and funded. The immediate precursor to today's public library was the British-born Mechanics' Institute, which first appeared in British North America in St John's, Newfoundland, in 1827. Supported initially by membership fees and modest government grants, the institutes were voluntary local educational associations for workers. As formal school facilities were developed, the institutes abandoned their teaching function, becoming libraries serving, not workers, but the emerging middle class. In Ontario the institutes were so popular that provincial legislation converted them into public libraries in 1895.
If a rural Ontario library was housed in the Mechanics' Institute, its equivalent in rural Quebec was found in the church hall. Parish libraries gained strength with the church pressure to circulate des bons livres and to counter the influence of the Instituts canadiens, founded in Montreal in 1844 and spreading to 50 centres thereafter. The Instituts were havens for intellectual discussion and animated political debate. They often maintained libraries containing a rich array of secular, often controversial publications, including newspapers, accessible to all members. After their demise, as a result of church pressure, many of their holdings were transferred to urban libraries.