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No. 119
Canada’s Digital Collections: Sharing the Canadian Identity on the Internet

by Elizabeth Krug, Preservation Branch, currently seconded to the CDC program at Industry Canada

In the world of today, libraries, museums, archives and other cultural institutions are beginning to use new information technologies to digitize books, records and images, on a mass scale. Digitization provides new capabilities to copy and preserve pictures, sound and text. Digital information can be shared on every computerized desktop with access to the Internet. Schools, libraries and homes can overcome great geographic distances to gain instantaneous access to materials from distant communities.

Industry Canada is playing an important role in connecting Canadians by means of the Internet. The government of Canada has a goal of making Canada the most connected nation in the world. It is investing in bringing Canada to the forefront of a global knowledge-based economy. Citizens who are connected to the Internet, be it at home, at school, or in a library, have access to a wealth of knowledge about Canada and the world. With this information, it is hoped that they will expand their outlook, develop skills and make contributions to the economy and society in more effective ways. With all of Canada’s 16,500 schools and 3,400 libraries connected to the Internet as of March 1999, and thousands of Community Access Program (CAP) sites in place, the tools for public access are developing quickly.

Since 1996, Canada’s Digital Collections (CDC) program of Industry Canada, has been helping organizations across Canada build up a stock of information on Canada for the Information Highway. Funded by the federal Youth Employment Strategy (YES), CDC makes possible an impressive exploration of the cultural diversity of Canada on-line. The CDC program awards contracts to organizations which hire young people, who, formed into multimedia project teams, create websites which draw together significant Canadian materials in the public domain. Text, images, audio and video material are combined in thematic sites and offered to users as electronic publications, virtual tours, and searchable databases. Youth between the ages of 15 and 30 acquire experience and develop new business skills in the information technology sector while building these sites. At the same time, they learn about important aspects of Canadian identity and contribute to its preservation. The young people involved in these projects have a range of skills, from operating a scanner to creating websites and databases. Many of the participants have subsequently started up their own companies. Competitions are held three times a year. More than 350 of the collections that have been posted to date and full details on the program are available at the CDC Web site [http://collections.ic.gc.ca/]

CDC has also funded projects of various size in some 20 federal departments and agencies, including the National Archives. Contracts were awarded to the National Archives in 1996 and 1997 for the digitization of the Attestation papers of citizens who enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in the first World War. As custodian of the Attestation papers, the National Archives undertook the management of this project and hired young people to work on the papers at the Renfrew, Ontario and Gatineau, Quebec offices. CDC funding has enabled the Archives to digitize approximately 20% (about 200,000 pages) of the Papers to date. Images of the pages can be retrieved from the Canadian Expeditionary Force — First World War data base on ArchiviaNet. Public response to the availability of these papers on-line has been overwhelming. Genealogists and the public in general can find tangible links to their ancestors, while the original, fragile documents are preserved in storage. The Soldiers of the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Forces site is one of the most-visited in the CDC collection, second only in popularity to The Books of Remembrance site.

Digitization projects on a smaller scale offer other examples of the variety of National Archives documents. They were undertaken by schools across Canada in the pilot phase of the program in early 1996, and can still be seen on the CDC site:

In 1998, the National Archives joined with Veterans Affairs Canada and Industry Canada to create a website on soldiers of the First World War who were awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. A young person, hired by the National Archives with CDC funding, researched the Attestation papers, photographs, newspaper clippings, citations, and other related documents and scanned them for the Victoria Cross Heroes: A Cameo site. This digital collection, along with the Canadian Virtual War Memorial was made available to the public on the Veterans Affairs website in November, 1998. At present, young people are working on a project to link all of the records of the Canadian war dead with the Books of Remembrance and are preparing an invitation for the public to submit digitized memorabilia to be included in the Memorial.

“Canada at War” is one of the major themes of Canada’s Digital Collections [http://collections.ic.gc.ca/]. The diversity of the subject matter on this site is extraordinary. Here is a random sample of the sites that have been produced by the young people hired under the CDC program:

Canada’s Digital Collections: Web page logo

Canada’s Digital Collections: Web page logo.

The above list only skims the surface of Canada’s Digital Collections [http://collections.ic.gc.ca], a rich source of information on Canadian identity. A complementary initiative, Aboriginal Digital Collections was undertaken as a pilot in 1998. The ADC site is a gateway to aboriginal content created by aboriginal youth. Approximately 40 projects were funded, some in very remote communities.

Twenty-eight collections are presently posted and deal with a range of subjects including history, research materials, business, and culture.

The potential of digitization has sparked great interest in the archival community. Important materials can be copied in a way that also allows them to be shared electronically. Archives, the custodians of our collective memory, are taking advantage of this technology and improving service to their clients with on-line access to their holdings. Canada’s Digital Collections program complements these initiatives by inviting proposals for projects in which young people are hired on contract, to digitize the Canadian record.