Expanded Colonist archive offers 1960s history at your fingertips

Amateur historians who want to see Victoria react to world events such as the first man on the moon or the city’s first “love-in” hosted in Beacon Hill Park can look online to historic copies of the Daily Colonist that now include the 1960s.

Publishing Tuesday through Sunday, like its modern descendant, the Times Colonist, meant the Daily Colonist missed the July 21, 1969, moon walk. Instead, the July 20 front-page headline declared: “Breathless World Awaits Historic Footfall” and the July 22 paper said: “Moon Trio Dashing Home.”

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Locally, the editors of the May 2, 1967, issue of the Daily Colonist decided to bury on page 21 a story of “Victoria’s first love-in approved by the younger generation” in Beacon Hill Park.

“A liberal smattering of hippies — young dropouts from society called latter-day beatniks — was on hand to shock the older generation for its utter disregard for conformity and conventional appearance,” the story read.

“Some youngsters wore sandals and a few were barefoot. Many had flowers in their hair,” said the story. “It was probably one of the strangest gatherings Victoria has ever seen.”

Historical investigators can also read about a visit to Victoria by Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father, on June 18, 1968, when “Trudeaumania” was first sweeping Canada. They can even read of the Canucks’ first game, a loss, in the Oct. 10, 1970, issue.

With the online archive of the Daily Colonist, britishcolonist.ca, now expanded to include the 1960s, readers can see issues dating from its founding as the British Colonist on Dec. 11, 1858, all the way up to 1970.

It’s an archival partnership of the University of Victoria and the Times Colonist, the latest incarnation of those two newspapers. Posting all those old issues online is supported by the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre of the University of British Columbia, part of the B.C. History Digitization Program.

The plan is to complete the online archival work up to 1980, when the Daily Colonist merged with the Victoria Times.

The online archive is already assisting historians and students of all ages, who can gain online access to original source materials.

“The Daily Colonist is a major resource for anybody who wants to study B.C. history,” said Tina Bebbington, UVic learning and research librarian for history, English and newspapers.

The newspaper is also valuable for anybody studying Canada around the time of its formation in 1867, Bebbington said. Other Canadian newspapers might extend back that far, but most charge for access. The Daily Colonist is freely available to anyone with a computer.

Lisa Goddard, UVic’s associate librarian for digital scholarship, points out the digital access is a boon for students. Today, they simply expect everything and anything of research value to be online. They also expect it to be accessible with keyword computer searches.

But most old newspapers are recorded on microfilm, photographic strips containing miniaturized photographs of full pages. It’s a good long-term storage format, but not very useful to the modern student.

“Most students today are just not that familiar with microfilm, and a lot of them don’t even know that it exists,” Goddard said.

She explained reading microfilm means putting the photographic strips into special readers, found in many libraries. These readers magnify the pages and project them on a screen. But unless you know a specific date, finding anything means reading page after page after page.

But Goddard said through a computer process known as optical character recognition, the Daily Colonist online can be digitally searched using keywords. This process uses a scanning tool to recognize the printed text of old pages and translate it into digital format, which can then be searched with digital tools, such as a keyword.

Optical character recognition isn’t perfect. It can’t read cursive writing and has trouble with curly type fonts. But it’s a huge leap forward for students and readers who might never be able to sit for hours in front of a special reading machine.

Bebbington also said additions of the Daily Colonist archives from the middle of the 20th century is a boon for researchers because it’s filling a gap.

She said publications from those decades, especially after the Second World War, are often still under copyright. As a result, they can only be accessed with permission, and access often requires payment.

“The whole mid-century period is hardly online at all,” Bebbington said. “There is almost no representatives of the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s or ’80s.”

An online newspaper is a great source for modern historians who try to use small, human anecdotes as illustrations as they discuss large-scale past events or trends, she said. The little human stories offer good clues to the viewpoints held in a community during an event or time period.

Bebbington said a newspaper will document big events. But read around the facts of those events and you can gather a clearer understanding of the people of the time.

Things such as the large number of ads for hats for men and women, the letters to the editor or the pictures in the lifestyle pages can give small clues to attitudes of the time.

“A newspaper during any particular time period is a snapshot,” she said. “It shows you what mainstream society cared about and how people viewed things.”

Dave Obee, editor and publisher of the Times Colonist, said digitally preserving its archives and making them freely available is not the only thing that makes this online record unique.

The archive is the product of a partnership with the university. That arrangement means UVic’s professional archivists and librarians are on hand to help people use the archive and do further research.

“This thing has really changed the way B.C. history is being researched,” said Obee.

“More and more information is available now because of this project,” he said. “It has really made a difference.”

Obee said one remarkable moment was when the T’exelcemc People, the Williams Lake First Nation, successfully sued for compensation over the theft of their village site, using a letter from the newspaper as part of their case.

A piece of the T’exelcemc evidence was a letter, published on Nov. 7, 1879, in the Daily British Colonist, from Chief William of the Williams Lake First Nation, who detailed the lands from which his people had been pushed.

“I wouldn’t have expected to see that kind of result,” Obee said. “That [Chief William’s letter] only came to light because the Colonist had been digitized.”

“With something like this at hand you can almost rewrite the whole way history is even done,” he said.

To view the archive, go to britishcolonist.ca.

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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