The Héritage / Canadian project and why this stinks for access to Canadian history

I am a History librarian. I am other things as well, but in my professional life, I identify mostly with historians, historical materials and history librarianship. I deal day in and out with students and researchers seeking historical documents. Over the past eight years, I have noticed a shameful fact; that while other countries – the U.S., France, Australia, England, Scotland, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, etc.. etc… etc… develop amazing national digital historical treasures to share with the rest of the world, Canada’s national library has done next to nothing by comparison.

Let me be honest though about Canadian documentary history online – the one national source we do have, Early Canadiana Online / Notre mémoire en ligne, is no gold standard and I have never been a fan. It has terrible search and retrieval functions, the metadata is awful, the sources themselves are fairly banal in many cases, and it just generally really underwhelms as an online portal to Canadian history. However, it is what we have, no matter how disappointing.

ECO’s relative uselessness in my opinion, never made it an issue of concern for me, despite intense reaction to the Canadiana / Héritage project secret deal of earlier this spring and summer. I didn’t think it could ever improve to the point where it would be a go-to source for Canadian history. I’ve much preferred and relied on the work of local and provincial archives, scholarly projects and the like.

Michael Geist’s recent blog post changed my mind. Although I still doubt that ECO will ever be terribly useful, the way that LAC and Canadiana have approached Canadian historical documents – as though they were someone’s to own and whose access can be restricted- is cause for concern. I know no one in this country, at least not at the level of the federal government, will put any money forward to do full scale projects like Gallica or Australia’s national newspaper digitization project. Projects of that magnitude are the difference between the Louvre and the National Gallery – one country takes its cultural heritage very seriously and the other just doesn’t get it (no disrespect intended to the National Gallery). But really – releasing only 10% of the documents into the public domain per year – when they are already in the public domain? And charging subscriptions for the rest of the 90% until the 10 year “exclusive” hosting license expires does not sit well with. Surely the explanation is that funding was non-existent and it is more than likely that the people at LAC and Canadiana actually think they are doing Canada a favour by putting these documents online in this way. But unfortunately something that could have demonstrated real goodwill looks like a desperate grab for cash and an attempt to keep documents off the screens of Canadians. Will this project succeed? I suppose only history will tell, but it’s off to a very sad start.

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