Sad Digital Humanities News

30 05 2011

Google is shutting down its digitization program for historical newspapers. Read more here.

Digitization of Historical Newspapers: Is Canada Trailing Other Countries?

14 04 2011

Digitized historical newspapers are an increasingly important resource for both academic researchers and undergraduates. I think that they are a fantastic teaching tool because that bring primary sources to students, which gives undergrads the sense of being “real historians”.

The Higher Education Academy in the UK was set up to improve undergrad teaching. The various Subject Centres within the academy produce guides of newly available resources for university teachers. The History Subject Centre’s guide on the use of Hollywood films in history teaching is well known outside of the UK.

The centre recently released a guide on historical newspapers that have gone digital. The guide focuses on British and US newspapers (e.g., the Times of London and New York Times databases), but it also had this to say about the progress in newspaper digitization in other English-speaking countries:

Canada, Australia and New Zealand (Greater Britain)

James Belich, in his recent book, Replenishing the Earth, has suggested that Britain’s white settlement colonies were effectively a British counterpart to the American West (Belich 2009). One way of testing Belich’s thesis might be to analyse the newspapers published in Canada and Australasia. Both Australia and New Zealand have major national digital newspaper projects. The National Library of Australia has digitised a selection of newspapers from the period 1803 to 1954, including full runs of major newspapers still in publication such as The Sydney Morning Herald. The National Library of New Zealand Papers Past project covers the years 1839 to 1932 and includes 52 publications from all regions of New Zealand. More will be digitised during the next few years. Unfortunately so far Canada has not funded a national project. However, some provincial newspapers have been digitised in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec. Two national newspapers, Toronto’s Globe and Mail and Star, have also been digitised and are obtainable from ProQuest on a subscription basis.

In the past, most undergraduates studying the history of those countries Belich has grouped together as ‘Greater Britain’, i.e. Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, have had even less access to primary sources than those studying US history. The digitised historic newspapers that have been made available free of charge by the national libraries of Australia and New Zealand could lead to the provision of more modules on Antipodean history in British higher education institutions.

The guide is right– the Canadian federal government has done very little in this department. The National Archives of Quebec has taken the lead in funding newspaper digitization, but alas most of the historical newspapers they have scanned and placed online would be unreadable to most students since they are mostly in French.  English-speaking Canada is light-years behind Quebec in this area, although the Victoria British Colonist database is an honourable exception to this generalization.  The Toronto Star and Globe and Mail are digitized, but only to subscribers and it is unlike that institutions outside of Canada will subscribe to them. In fact many Canadians universities are having trouble finding the cash to pay for access.

It may be that the Canadian government is unaware of the importance of digitized resources in public diplomacy.  Digitizing resources and placing them online for all to use is a cheap way of getting foreigners to study your country.

Moreover, I see some inconsistency here. The current federal government has paid lipservice to the idea of increasing the Canadian public’s knowledge of Canadian history (e.g., the Discover Canada Citizenship Guide). Yet it hasn’t funded the sort of electronic resources that might further this goal.