Clicking into the past

Project digitizes 65 years and 200,000 pages of The Guardian

Jim Day jday@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on February 8, 2014

Ed MacDonald has cranked through more than his share of microfilm.

The information eventually gleaned would often be quite valuable to the associate professor of UPEI’s department of history. The process, however, was arduous.

“Microfilm is very cumbersome...it’s a reliable technology but it’s cumbersome,’’ says MacDonald, the author of If You’re Stronghearted: Prince Edward Island in the Twentieth Century.

MacDonald, like many other historians, genealogists or simply curious Islanders, have turned to microfilm to get information from The Guardians of many years past.

Well, the need for that at-times near torturous approach to digging up information from this newspaper is now also in the past — at least for the period from 1892 to 1957.

That fascinating 65-year stretch of P.E.I. history is available in a fully searchable online archive thanks to the IslandNewspapers.ca project.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE DIGITAL NEWSPAPERS

The project is a digitization effort carried out by Robertson Library at UPEI and its partners with the goal of creating a searchable, online collection of the Island’s historic newspapers.

UPEI librarian Mark Leggott says to create a prototype and proof of concept, The Guardian provided some seed funding to support that research and it resulted in IslandNewspapers.ca, a small subset of Guardian content three years ago.

Using the prototype and feedback from the community, the library has built on that work and has relaunched IslandNewspapers.ca with over five terabytes of content comprising 200,000 searchable page images from The Guardian from the 1890s to the 1950s, created a robust search engine and have paired that with an improved display interface.

“So you can search family names, key words...it’s very rich,’’ says Leggott.

“I think users are going to range from six year olds to 100 year olds — and the purposes will vary from education to personal gratification, genealogy. All of the things you can imagine. Answering questions about the past.’’

Guardian managing editor Gary MacDougall thinks people will be very impressed with the IslandNewspapers.ca site.

“Christmas has come early for people interested in P.E.I. history and culture,” he said.

“From any computer, from any location, people will be able to type their way back into the daily comings and goings of Prince Edward Islanders from the 1890s to the late 1950s. And what better captures daily life but a community newspaper, such as The Guardian has been throughout the years.”

MacDougall says Leggott and his team at UPEI deserve special thanks for their great addition to Island historical research.

And this notable addition will continue to be added to. By the end of this year, Robertson Library staff will have digitized The Guardian into the 1960s and carry forward in the coming years. (Due to copyright laws, The Guardian can only be digitized up to 50 years from the current year).

Leggott says that while the official launch of IslandNewspapers.ca isn’t until Tuesday, Feb. 11, the site has been up for awhile and garnering attention.

“We got an email from an older woman in the community, who is in her 90s, and she just sent us an email and she said ‘I’ve been looking at this and it’s awesome. I look at it every day.’’’

Jill Coffin, a teacher/librarian at Bluefield High School, has been on the site digging into her ancestry. She clicked in and read up on her grandfather Cyril Sanderson, who owned the last farm on Greenwich Road that is now part of the Greenwich Prince Edward Island National Park.

“I really enjoyed taking a look and going back,’’ says Coffin. “I definitely see lots of potential there.’’

MacDonald says newspapers have an immediate quality, providing a sense of an event at the moment it occurred.

“It’s a wonderful way to get at issues that don’t get recorded in other ways, not just news stories but public opinions about things, advertising...and it’s an excellent way to track social and cultural trends,’’ he says.

IslandNewspapers.ca, he adds, should prove to be “a key source for Islanders to research all aspects of their past.’’

Simon Lloyd, UPEI’s archives and special collections librarian, notes there are few places where newspapers play so large and important a role as on Prince Edward Island.

“Even now, in an era when newspapers the world over are struggling to compete with ‘free’ Internet content, Island papers boast enviable circulation figures,’’ says Lloyd.

“In addition to their exceptional influence and reach, newspapers’ importance for students of Island history — be they professional academics, independent scholars, or casual browsers — is heightened by the fact that other P.E.I. institutions did not necessarily develop with the same speed and strength,’’ he adds.

Lloyd notes that the Island had no provincial archives until the 1960s and no Hansard transcript of legislative proceedings until the 1990s. Even now, the province remains without an official depository library for Island print publications, though the Confederation Centre Public Library and UPEI Robertson Library have endeavoured to fulfill that role with their P.E.I. Collections in recent decades.

“In this context,’’ says Lloyd, “maintaining some sort of public record of Island life was, for many years, a haphazard and incomplete affair, and much of the work has often fallen to the newspapers; even their contents would not have survived for posterity without the microfilming efforts of the Canadian Library Association and the Provincial Archives, which began in earnest in the 1960s and 1970s, and which managed to salvage at least parts of the Island’s newspaper canon dating back to the late 1700s.”

Leggott says the IslandNewspapers.ca project is part of Robertson Library’s effort to move P.E.I. history in to the digital realm.

“I would say the newspaper and all the digital collections that we do are invaluable,’’ he says. “I mean it’s hard to put a value on a historic collection of newspapers.’’

Rob Drew, digitization technician at UPEI's Robertson Library has been busy scanning microfilm for the IslandNewspapers.ca project.

©Guardian photo by Heather Taweel

Paper Partnership

The IslandNewspapers.ca project is made possible through the efforts of a number of individuals and institutions, including:

— UPEI Robertson Library provides the technical infrastructure for creating and serving the content on the site with contributions made by both staff and students at the university.

— The Guardian has supported the project with both financial and resource contributions.

— Peter Rukavina, a Charlottetown businessman and the 2013 Hacker in Residence at the Robertson Library, has provided advice throughout the project.

— The P.E.I. Public Archives and Records Office has provided source material from their collections to create better scans and also resources to assist with the project.

— The Robertson Library has benefitted from the generosity of a number of private and institutional donors, including St. Dunstan’s University, The Prince of Wales College, James Palmer and a number of donors interested in making P.E.I.’s history available to all.