Dave Obee: Don’t let politics interfere with data access

Much more information about your ancestors, about the early history of Victoria — about the entire country, in fact — will soon be available on your own computer, or at least at your local library.

Before that can happen, though, we need to sort out some politics, and smooth some ruffled feathers.

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There are two issues here, involving two massive dumps of data that will benefit everyone with an interest in Canadian history. I’m willing to bet that the two issues are related.

First, the 1921 census, which will provide a snapshot of Canada a few years after the end of the Great War.

It was supposed to be made available to the public on June 1. It has been digitized, and is ready for release.

But the federal government, which holds the key to this trove of historical material, is holding back.

Second, the deal between Library and Archives Canada and the non-profit Canadiana.org, which is run as a membership alliance by public and university libraries. The University of Victoria is a member of Canadiana, and Jonathan Bengtson, the university librarian, was recently elected to the board.

LAC and Canadiana reached an agreement to digitize 60 million pages of archival documents, everything from diaries to ship logs to church registers. We will no longer need to travel to Ottawa to see these documents; we will be able to read them without leaving home.

Wait, it gets better. It’s one thing to try to sift through images of documents, it’s quite another to be able to search through them using what’s known as metadata, the keywords that make searching easier. This project will include the creation of metadata.

That’s a big deal. Consider that until five years ago, research in the old British Colonist (and related titles) from 1858 through 1910 meant reading microfilm in libraries. In 2008, UVic, the Times Colonist and other partners launched a website that made these pages fully searchable. (Work has started on the next phase, which will digitize the Daily Colonist up to 1930.)

The Colonist site, which launched with 100,000 pages, transformed the way that history is researched in this province. Canadiana will have 60 million pages. Wow.

Money for the Canadiana project is coming from an organization of research libraries, and the site will be available for free through university and public libraries, and even better, in your home or on your smartphone.

When word leaked out about the deal, there were complaints, mainly about the fact that it was negotiated behind closed doors. Archivists and university teachers have raised objections, as has the former head of Library and Archives Canada. The media have, sad to say, helped fuel the fire.

But really, what’s the issue? The more material that can be digitized and placed online, the easier it will be for all researchers. The Canadiana deal will preserve and make accessible documents that might otherwise go unseen. Let’s not quibble over technicalities, let’s move ahead.

Bengtson avidly supports the project, as do Maureen Sawa, who runs the Greater Victoria Public Library, and Paul Whitney, Vancouver’s retired head librarian.

Back to the 1921 census. Volunteers are lined up, ready to start indexing the 8.8 million names as soon as the images are placed online. Last year, after the 1940 United States census was put on the Internet, volunteers compiled an index of its 132 million names in just four months.

The catch is that any indexing project will be co-ordinated by an outside organization, not by Library and Archives Canada. The last time LAC pushed ahead with a project involving an outside agency — that would be last week, with Canadiana — there were loud complaints.

Is it any wonder we are being forced to wait for the census?

With both projects, information locked up in Ottawa will be finally be available to everyone. In a short time, if all goes well, we will see two giant leaps forward in terms of understanding to our history and heritage.

But first, we need to get past the politics, and get down to what really matters — access for all.

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