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Birch Bark Bookmark

August 31, 2018


In the fall of 1928, Marshall McLuhan enrolled into the Engineering program at the University of Manitoba, not far from where he lived in the city of Winnipeg.

The following summer, he worked as a ‘rod man’ on a surveying crew in northern Manitoba, and enjoyed it all so much he switched to a Bachelor of Arts.


It was more likely his growing love of literature and intellectual pursuits rather than distaste of toil or engineering as a subject which led to the major change in direction.

But back to the birch bark bookmark:

Birch bark bookmanr

I know the dates are wrong. If you want to get all technical and historically accurate my story falls apart at this point, but to me this scrap of Manitoba Birch bark is symbolic of that pivotal moment when Marshall McLuhan makes the huge life change from studying to be an engineer to a Liberal Arts program in which he focused on history, philosophy and literature.

The world would not be the same.

I discovered this little bookmark tucked into a book in my dad’s library years ago. I don’t remember which book – it didn’t seem important. I thought it was beautiful, and that I would keep it as a remembrance of my grandfather – my dad didn’t mind.

I had my friend Vanessa Pandos, a glass artist, make a little frame to preserve it, and it has hung in dad’s study, the ‘Scriptorium’ since. It hangs on a beam just to my right as I sit at my desk, now inventorying my father’s books — a memento from when I inventoried Marshall’s books at the same desk, almost a decade earlier.

Back then, when I started inventorying Marshall McLuhan’s books, I had only just begun to get very interested in the McLuhan work. [I had been interested earlier, but it didn’t really click for me, I didn’t really begin to be able to understand much of it until into my 30s, and once it started to make sense, its got more interesting.] It was those 18 or so months taking stock of Marshall’s 6000+ item library, chatting with my father and asking him questions, getting to know my grandfather through his books and their contents like this book mark which really drew me in.

Here I am a decade later [since we’re playing a little loose with chronology for the sake of the story], having followed my dad around the world while he gave lectures, having done my best to learn everything I can from him — here I am now inventorying his library too.


Some of the choices we make, like switching majors from Engineering to the Liberal Arts can change not only our lives, but quite literally change the world.

Yet some of the seemingly little things we do, like scribbling our name and the date onto a scrap of birch bark and tucking it into a book, can ripple down through time and almost a hundred years later be meaningful and precious to a grandchild who will put it on display for the world to see and think about those bigger choices we make.

Thanks for being here.


One Comment leave one →
  1. digitallifecenter permalink
    September 1, 2018 9:03 am

    It would be interesting to “catalog” Marshall’s and Eric’s libraries by subject. I did a quick look through the UofT Finding Aid and there wasn’t much “history” there — other than for English literature. Also very little “philosophy” — understandable given their stance in favor of “Grammar” against “Dialectics.” My guess is that the bulk would rather be classified as “aesthetics,” but I wonder what you are finding . . . ??

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