Canada in the Making: A Project to Digitise Early Official Publications

Article excerpt

By spring 2006, will be nearing completion of its rather ambitious project to digitise Canada's major official publications from the 18th and 19th centuries. Upon completion of the project, over 1.5 million pages of some of this country's most important documentary heritage, such as its acts, debates, legislative journals and sessional papers, will be available, with full text searching, on the Early Canadiana Online (ECO) site Just what is and how did this small, non-profit organization come to build the most comprehensive on-line collection of early Canadian legislative materials in just six short years?

----- (formerly known as the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions (CIHM)), was launched in 1978 by the Canada Council. In 1969, the academic community protested when the Council terminated a program of assistance to university libraries. In response, the Council convened a group of librarians and scholars, known as the Consultative Group on University Research Libraries, to report on the problems facing university libraries, and to advise on solutions.

The Consultative Group's Report, published in 1978, noted two key problems: a lack of access to Canada's published heritage, and secondly, a need for this heritage collection to be preserved for future generations. Regarding the former concern, researchers were having difficulty accessing older collections because they were so unevenly distributed across Canada. Much money and time was being spent traveling to libraries that were (understandably) unwilling to loan out their rarest materials. In regards to the latter concern--preservation--many of the publications from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries were deteriorating due to heavy use. The Report noted: "We are faced with the alarming prospect that students in future generations will have very little early Canadian material to study, unless some large and constructive measures are taken immediately." (1)

The Report recommended that "the Canada Council endow an appropriate organization with the sum of $2 million ... to be used exclusively for the creation of a microform Canadiana collection.... "(2) This national organization, by reproducing older books onto preservation quality microfiche and then distributing the microfiche to subscribing libraries, could address the dual concerns of access and preservation. Canada Council acted on the recommendation and (or CIHM as it was originally known) came into existence. In its 28 years of operation, has created several products and in the process has built the largest single collection of early published Canadiana in the world.

For the first twenty-two years of its existence,'s collections were distributed in microfiche format. Its microfiche collection of early Canadian books, annuals, and periodicals, comprises over 90, 000 titles on 270, 000 microfiche. In 1996, while still involved in microfilming, began also to move into the digital realm. As a pilot project,, along with fellow project partners--Library and Archives Canada (LAC), the University of Toronto and Laval University Library--and with substantial support from the Mellon Foundation, undertook one of the first large-scale digital projects in Canada. A selection of approximately 3000 microfiche titles were digitised (outsourced to OCLC Preservation Service Centers) and published on's new website Early Canadiana Online (ECO) at These digitised titles were grouped into six thematic collections: English Canadian Literature, Native Studies, Canadian Women's History, History of French Canada, Hudson's Bay and Jesuit Relations.

ECO was an instant success, with over eight million hits received in its first year! Researchers were enthused with the digital version of books, for it now meant that early Canadiana could be accessed from the comfort of their homes or offices, resulting in a reduction in the amount of time and money spent on the traveling formerly needed to access these materials. …