New tools to dig digitally into Island papers’ past

Historians and genealogists interested in people and communities north of Vancouver Island’s Malahat summit are gaining two new tools from Vancouver Island University.

VIU Library and Special Collections is embarking on a project to reproduce in digital format early editions of the Nanaimo Daily Free Press (1874-1928) and the Cowichan Leader (1905-1928).

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The project is expected to take 11 months but once completed those early editions of the two newspapers will be available online for free. At this time, the only way to view them is to travel to libraries in Nanaimo and scroll through microfilm.

Ben Hyman, VIU librarian, said the move is the first time original historical data from communities north of the Malahat are being made freely and widely available.

“You would have to actually travel to Nanaimo to view those materials,” said Hyman. “This will connect the dots for folks interested in that kind of scholarship.”

“Without these newspapers, there is really not much of a narrative about what life was like on the Island, at least north of the Malahat,” he said.

Digital reconfiguration of the two newspapers and posting them online is possible because of a $40,000 grant from the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at the University of British Columbia.

The project is also supported by the Nanaimo Archives, the Nanaimo Historical Society and the Vancouver Island Regional Library.

Once the newspapers are digitally preserved, they will be available to the public with online tools such as Google Scholar, library indexes and the B.C. Digital Library.

Hyman said the two newspapers represent some of the earliest journalism on Vancouver Island and reflect some of the social realities of their times.

For example, he noted the stories about the treatment and displacement of First Nations communities can be disturbing when viewed with modern sensibilities.

The same goes for attitudes toward immigrants from places such as China.

“When we put on a modern lens and we review some of that material it can be, like a lot of our history, quite striking,” said Hyman.

Likewise, it’s interesting from a historical, economic and social point of view to examine the development of communities through news stories.

For example, 1874 is not just the first year of the Nanaimo newspaper. It is also the year the city was incorporated.

A few families held power, most notably the coal-mining Dunsmuirs. The Hudson’s Bay Co. was still a financial and mercantile force.

“There is this deep imprint of wealth consolidation in just a few families in the early days,” said Hyman.

“It put a peculiar curve on the ball for how the community developed.”

“There is quite a remarkable story packed into the island that we live on,” he said.

“It’s quite interesting the breadth of community and what was happening in terms of culture and development of industry.”

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