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Canada’s Grassroots National Digital Library Takes Shape

Appeared in the Toronto Star on January 16, 2011 as Ottawa AWOL but Others Busy Digitizing Canada’s Heritage

Last week, the European Commission released The New Renaissance, an expert report on efforts to digitize Europe’s cultural heritage. Europe has been particularly aggressive about its digitization efforts, developing Europeana, an online portal currently featuring more than 15 million works of art, books, music, and film, as well as the European Library, which provides access to 24 million pages of full-text scanned by 14 national libraries.

Several European countries have set very ambitious digitization goals.  The National Library of the Netherlands has committed to digitizing everything – all Dutch books, newspapers and periodicals dating back to 1470.  The National Library of Norway set a similar goal in 2005, setting in motion plans to digitize its entire collection that now includes 170,000 books, 250,000 newspapers, 610,000 hours of radio broadcasts, 200,000 hours of television and 500,000 photographs.

Building on those efforts, the report recommended that public domain works be digitized with public funding and be made freely available for access and re-use.  It also called on lawmakers to develop policies to facilitate the digitization of works still subject to copyright protection.

Canada could have attempted something similar years ago by committing to its own national digital library. Library and Archives Canada was given responsibility for the issue but was unable to muster the necessary support for a comprehensive plan.  Last year, it published a final report on its national digital information strategy, noting that it “brings to a close LAC’s role as facilitator of the consultations.”

Leadership could have alternatively come from Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore and his department.  Yet despite the fact that a national digital library would seem like a perfect fit for a department mandated to increase access and visibility of Canadian culture, the federal government has been largely missing-in-action.

In the absence of national leadership, a loosely connected coalition of local and provincial digitization initiatives have begun to take shape.

The LAC may not be prepared to lead on a national digital library, but it is beefing up its digital collection.  For example, by the end of the year, Canadians will be able to access digitized images of original census documents from 1861 and 1871, which contain the name, age, country or province of birth, nationality, religion, and occupation of Canadians at the time.

In Quebec, the Quebec Library and Archives is working toward digitizing all published and archival documentary heritage produced in the province since the 17th century with approximately ten million objects digitized thus far.

The University of Toronto has been actively working with Internet Archive Canada to digitize about 300,000 public domain books.  Meanwhile, the University of Alberta’s Peel’s Prairie Provinces digital collection has digitized nearly 3 million articles from 73 different newspapers.

Other universities from coast to coast have provincially-focused digitization initiatives. Memorial University’s Digital Archives Initiative focuses on Newfoundland and Labrador, the University of Saskatchewan has a collection of digitized items including poetry, Saskatchewan post cards, magazines, books, paintings and historical documents, and Simon Fraser University has digitized 250,000 pages of the Chinese Times daily newspaper, which was published in Vancouver from 1914 to 1992.

When combined with a wide range of other digitization efforts – 15,000 historic images from the Vancouver Public Library, thousands of legal cases from the Canadian Legal Information Institute, 135,000 images from the McCord Museum of Canadian History in Montreal – it becomes apparent that Canadians recognize the importance of digitally preserving and making available their culture and heritage even in the absence of a national strategy.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

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