Response to National Archives Staff Digitization Proposals on Behalf of Canadian Historical Association, January 15, 2001
Memorandum prepared by Colin Howell, CHA Council member
In early December, 2000 the Canadian Historical Association received a letter from Marianne McLean at the National Archives outlining a program to digitize its collections so that they would be electronically accessible to all Canadians. The objective is to offer key archival collections, exhibitions and educational products to researchers, students and Canadians from all walks of life. The letter asked the Canadian Historical Association for its assistance in establishing priorities for digitization and included, in a separate attachment, a list of 19 proposed digitization initiatives. These included eleven collections, two exhibitions, and six themes, although the relationship of the themes to the list of collections and exhibitions is not made as clear as it might be. The proposals had been reviewed in-house against the following criteria: representing all Canadians and all regions; records of great intrinsic interest; catching the interest of Canadians who have not yet used archives; serving the most common needs of our current users; all the types of collections held by the National Archives; projects of interest to partners in public and private sectors, and increasing French language content on the Internet.
The Consultative Process
Upon receipt of the documentation, consultations began with members of the CHA council and its archives committee. Those that responded expressed their great interest in and support for the general initiative, but raised concerns about the consultation and planning process. The general feeling was that the response time was too short - especially taking into consideration the Christmas holiday season - and that a broader and less hurried consultative process would be desirable. This concern was communicated to Ms. McLean, who gave assurance that what was being presented was simply the first stage in an ongoing consultative process involving many stakeholder groups and other major archives across the country.
My subsequent contact with council and archives committee members elicited responses from the following people: CHA President Chad Gaffield, council members Wendy Mitchinson, Peter Baskerville, Penny Bryden and Donald Frison, and archives committee members Peter Twohig, John Lutz, Bruce Elliott and Greg Marquis. What follows is a preliminary set of recommendations from the CHA drawn from this limited group of respondents, and represents my own synthesis of their comments and recommendations. It is my intention, however, to continue to consult with our membership over the upcoming months in order to develop a more representative understanding of how historians in Canada would respond to the questions posed by Ms. McLean.
In addition to our continuing process of consultation we believe that plans to digitize NAC material should be undertaken in conjunction with similar efforts at the major provincial archives, museums and research institutes. Plans for digitization are already underway, for example, at the Ontario Archives, at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, at the Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management (NSARM), and at numerous other archives, libraries and university-based research centres. Would it not be wise, therefore, to contemplate an archival symposium on this issue to consider a broad apportionment of themes and to ensure that there is no unnecessary duplication of time, effort and expense. [For instance, proposal no.15 (Western Settlement) makes reference to photographic and textual records from the Canadian National Railway, but the above mentioned CSTM has already begun its CNR digitization project.]
With so many archives and other facilities taking steps to digitize materials it seems appropriate that the National Archives, in conjunction with or under the auspices of the Canadian Council of Archives, develop a strategic plan in the coming year. Given that funding support may be forthcoming in the next federal budget, it is particularly important that a rational planning process be initiated as soon as possible
Criteria for Selection
The general principles that have guided the selection process, and which were outlined in the covering letter, are clearly important to this ongoing initiative. There is no doubt that the National Archives must concern itself with representing all Canadians and all regions fairly, that the breadth of the Archives' various types of collections should be represented as much as possible, that there needs to be a balance between digitizing collections that meet the needs of traditional users such as historians and genealogists and providing material that will catch the interest of non-traditional users. The objective of increasing French language content on the Internet is a noble one, although there is not much in the present proposals that speaks to this need. The remaining two principles are less clear in their meaning: there is no doubt that the records should be ones of "great interest", but to whom? and how is this to be judged? And finally, what is meant by "projects of interest to partners in public and private sectors"?
From the point of view of the professional historian, moreover, there are other questions of representation that immediately jump to mind. Is there enough attention given to women, to the working class or to organized labour? Is there an appropriate balance between pre-and post Confederation materials, between the political and the social, the arts and popular culture, work and leisure, rural and urban life? And finally, when addressing regional representation, will researchers in the regions find material of interest relating to both the colonial and the more contemporary periods? One is struck, for example, that there is little here relating specifically to Atlantic Canada in the industrial era (which may unwittingly reinforce older stereotypes about the region's marginal importance after Confederation), a similar dearth of material relating to French Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries, and not much at all concerning British Columbia.
In establishing priorities for collections, exhibitions and general themes it is important to reflect upon the needs of traditional users (historians and genealogists), occasional users (often professionals in other fields searching for a very specific piece of information), and the possibility of attracting non-traditional users to the Archives. The utility of digitizing information is twofold: to ease the work of those who already use the archives, and to lure others to it.
Keeping this in mind, what follows is a general ranking of projects in three categories: high priority proposals, second priority proposals, and low priority proposals. Not all those consulted in this process would be in agreement with these rankings, but they represent the feeling of a majority of the respondents.
1. High Priority Proposals. (Collections: nos. 1, 3, 8, 11; Exhibition: no. 13; Themes: nos.15, 18)
Among the high priority items are the census of 1871, The Canadian Expeditionary Force attestation papers, the passenger/border crossing lists, and the loyalist lists, all used extensively by people who frequent the archives. Digitizing these collections would certainly ease the work of a great many people. It might also serve to interest a broader segment of society in genealogical work by making the initial family searches more user-friendly, and might encourage people to visit the archives to continue their research. In addition to these collections, respondents emphasized the attractiveness of the Canada day to day exhibition, and the themes of western settlement and the North.
i) The Census of 1871. This is one of the seminal documents in the archives, widely used by researchers already. There is, however, a political reason for advocating the digitizing of this census. Making this census available and providing some context about the ways in which researchers use the material could become an important tool for educating the public about the need to preserve and allow access to 20th century census material.
Of the respondents who offered advice to me, all but one considered this a very high priority project. The comments of the critic of this proposal are nonetheless worthy of consideration. "Why go to the trouble of digitizing the census of 1871?" this person asked. "If I understand what this will mean, i.e., that a user could turn pages in search of whomever, it would seem that a better use of the money would be to key the data into a computerized data base. Digitizing the census might be of some value to the stay at home genealogist but very limited value for historians. A computerized database would be of use to both groups."
ii) CEF Attestation Papers. Widely used source, of value to military and social historians and genealogists, and potentially attractive to new users.
iii) Passenger/Border crossing Lists. Particularly significant source for historians interested in migration, settlement and family history and of course for genealogists. Although the production of nominal indexes would be extremely costly, this should be nonetheless be contemplated, unless it would come at the expense of other high priority items.
iv) Loyalist Lists. A standard and essential source, and necessary to meet the requirements of appropriate regional balance
i) Canada from day to day. This is a particularly intriguing exhibition, and something that the Archives should move toward as quickly as possible. It provides a way of showing users of all types what the archives has to offer in a variety of different areas, of showcasing the existing collections, and publicizing the national treasure that is the Archives. This will take some time to put together, so work on this should begin immediately. The other proposed exhibit, the daguerreotypes, sounds interesting but perhaps to fewer people than is the case with the other proposals.
i) Western Settlement. A thematic exhibit on the West would have broad appeal. It is also the kind of thematic project upon which subsequent exhibits could be 'spun off", including exhibits pertaining to specific ethnic groups (the Ukrainians or Doukhobors, for example), specific issues (e.g. the construction of the railroad, the use of Chinese labour), or other themes such as urbanization and agricultural development.
ii) The North. Particularly interesting because sources are in short supply, and because of the growing public interest in both the provincial north and the high arctic.
These two thematic proposals, however, draw attention to the need for complementary themes relating to colonial life and industrialization/urbanization. Under the latter of these, i.e. industrialization/urbanization, one could include collection nos. 4 and 10 and theme no.17. Careful attention should also be given to how British Columbia fits into these thematic proposals.
2. Second Priority Proposals (collection nos. 4, 5, 10, Themes no.16, 19)
i) Bird's Eye Views of Canadian Cities. This is a manageable (only 70 images) and attractive project, sure to appeal to both traditional and non-traditional users. The description provided is rather vague, but assuming that there is good national coverage, this could make an appealing project for urban historians, architectural and heritage folks, and a wide range of others. With appropriate support, such images could be useful to public school teachers (and those in universities) who wish to focus on the theme of urbanization/industrialization.
ii) Battles of the First World War. Given the widespread public interest in Canada's military history this is obviously an attractive project. Like the other collections in this second priority list, this collection is probably not used as extensively by regular archive researchers but, if digitized, it could be of interest both to a number of professional historians and to non-traditional users.
iii) Fire Insurance Plans. In tandem with the bird's eye views of cities, this collection of fire insurance plans will be of use to those interested in industrialism, architecture, and the process of urban development.
B. Themes (nos. 16, 17, 19)
These three themes, early film and television, youth, and aboriginal peoples, connect to important issues and will be attractive to particular constituencies and non-traditional users. Some of the material noted under item 19 could be made part of a larger thematic unit on colonial life. Nos. 16 and 17 address questions pertaining to the production of cultural life, the construction of childhood, and issues relating to work and leisure activities. Given the relative absence of material pertaining to working class life and the growing interest of historians and others in leisure, sport and the engenderment of work and play, would it not be possible to develop a theme around issues of work, play and leisure?
Low Priority Proposals (Collections nos. 2, 6, 7, 9; Exhibition no. 12; Theme: no 14)
The remaining items, i.e. the Parr Traill/Moodie collection, the NFB photos, the orders-in council, the cabinet conclusions, the daguerreotypes and the postal archives, fall into the final priority category. The early literature collection is no doubt a rich resource, but most respondents pointed to its limited appeal, and to the fact that it does not point to alternate uses of the Archives. The photos might be interesting, but an entire collection of pictures is still slow to download and might deter rather than encourage usage. The orders-in-council are heavily used, but are they not published in the Canadian Gazette and widely available across the country? A digitized index might be nice, but we are not convinced that it will gain widespread use. (There were divided opinions, however, about whether the orders-in-council should be high or low priority). The cabinet conclusions are interesting. Their opening in January of each year always results in a flurry of journalistic interest in the archives, but they are not regarded as crucial. In general the cabinet minutes behind the conclusions are of more interest to historians looking into policy issues. And finally, there was general agreement that the postal archives theme was less important than others listed here. Nor does it seem as useful as some other thematic options not mentioned in the proposal, but referred to earlier in this memorandum.
The proposals for digitization that have been presented are exciting and interesting, and strike a nice balance between serving the needs of traditional users and attracting new ones to the Archives. The CHA supports the general initiative in digitization and the dissemination of archival material presented here, and wishes to present but one final cautionary note. At a time when so many are becoming enamoured of new technologies, it is important that they do not supplant or divert resources from the other essential task of the Archives - to collect, preserve and make available Canada's heritage resources. The CHA thus supports as a general principle, digitization for purposes of dissemination, but not for preservation.
In conclusion, the Canadian Historical Association is happy to have been consulted at this early stage in the process, and is very interested in providing input as the project develops. Indeed, the development of a strategic plan for the digitization of archival materials is an important priority, and your consultation with stakeholder groups represents an important first step in this direction.
Thank you again for inviting our opinions on this vitally important and exciting initiative.
Member, CHA Council and Archives Committee