Monday, December 01, 2008

BC Digitization Symposium 2008 - Opening Session - Ian Wilson, Library & Archives Canada

Tonight I attended the opening session of the BC Digitization Symposium 2008, West Beyond The West being held at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Ian Wilson, Librarian and Archivist of Canada gave the keynote address, which he called: From Canada, by Web: Settling a New World.

Certainly he gave a good speech, and overall, a good overview of the many threads that I also feel need to inform discussions of digitization of historical and cultural materials - questions about preservation, the thorny issue of copyright, the trend, now even in North America, towards portable 'computer-like' devices, the popularity of authorship on the web, the possibility of 'digitization on demand', for instance.

He made it clear he sees both a need for Canadian content on the web, and a desire for it from users (mostly genealogists, of course!) and that he recognizes that if Canadian content is to be uploaded and downloaded in a context informed by 'Canadian' values and experience, this will mean dealing with issues like accessibility and language.

He did, however, mention the role of Library and Archives Canada not as a leader, but as a catalyst, in encouraging digitization partnerships. Yes, he mentioned commercial partners, but few specifics, although he did talk a bit about and the donation of software to Canadiana from OpenText Corporation, for example. (Tom Jenkins, the Executive Chairman of Open Text was elected to's Board this last summer. is a not-for-profit organization, originally established by the Canada Council for the Arts, which is now co-ordinating digitization initiatives by various partners. has been partnering since 2007 with a commercial company, The Generations Network (TGN), aka, for financial and possibly other considerations. )

Mr. Wilson went on to say that digitized collections already on the web have brought to Canadians' attention the range and depth of Canada's historic documents and artifacts, have made history more personal to users - history "first person singular"- and brought an affirmation of Canadian identity and diversity, for instance, in 'Project Naming', as archival photographs of unnamed 'Eskimos' were scanned, so that youthful volunteers could work with elders and others to identify the individuals shown.

Mostly well and good - however, one of his beginning points, I think, was that the proliferation of digitized materials has reasserted the need for archival and institutional stewardship, expert information and analysis, and the management of these resources. Again I agree with him, but here also I see a disconnect at the moment - at least in some of LAC's partnerships.

One obvious example, from LAC's relationship with TGN, would be in the recent addition of Canadian World War I attestation papers to's offerings.

First, for instance, the description of this index on Ancestry says "This database contains an index to the Attestation papers of men [my emphasis] enlisted...."

Good grief! Then what are all those female nurses doing in that index? As the steward of these original Canadian records, and as our information experts, did LAC not at least explain these records to TGN?

And second, if LAC really wants to ask genealogists who look at these attestations, "Would you like an order of Canadian history to go with that?" as LAC has said previously [Note 1], why did LAC let them be shown to viewers as isolated 'objects' at in the first place - why not keep the viewer on LAC's website where they can be linked to other related resources? And, any index to the attestations is really only an index to the Canadian WW I soldiers' files held at LAC. Sadly, most viewers may be unaware that they can order copies of the files or view the files in Ottawa and that, in many cases, they will find valuable information at LAC.

Well, tomorrow is another day, as a famous fictional southern woman once said. I'm looking forward to mulling over some of these issues in tomorrow's symposium sessions.


Canadian Digitization Information Strategy. If you do read the Draft Strategy from October 2007, be sure to read the on-line responses to the draft too:

About Us,

Project Naming, Library & Archives Canada. This is a Canadian website, in French, English and Inuktitut. To see the latter, you'll need a special font, but that's available free, follow the links:

Note 1: Re 'Would you like an order of Canadian history to go with that?" I didn't make that up myself, it's from LAC's February 2007 'Strategy for the LAC Genealogy Program' sic! I have never decided whether this 'slogan' is patronizing or just plain silly.
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