When I was first asked to write for The History Collective, I was unsure what to talk about. I am not currently involved in any groundbreaking research, nor am I in the process of completing a PhD. I’ve been out of the game for a while, so to speak—a casual observer of academia more than a participant. A friend and fellow writer suggested that I produce a piece about digitization, something that I’ve been involved with intermittently over the past 5-6 years. At first thought, it didn’t seem all that promising. From 2011-2013, I supervised a two-year project to digitize a collection of 130,000 Second World War aerial photographs at LCMSDS, an interdisciplinary research center at Wilfrid Laurier University. The images are fascinating, definitely; but there’s little to say about the actual process of digitization. As I recently reaffirmed at another job—this time to digitize the municipal address records for the City of Waterloo—digitization is incredibly tedious work. It’s the final product that’s important, not the process itself.
Okay, that’s not quite right. Process, as it turns out, is everything; and it’s something in which processional academics and the public should take a greater interest. As large collections of documents, important to the conduct to daily business, government function, or historical research continue to linger in the pre-digital past, digitization is becoming an increasingly greater part of our lives. Bringing this information up to speed has many benefits: greater efficiency in the workplace, the capacity to share, sort and access large quantities of data, not to mention the preservation of critical information. But going digital is not always easy; it requires a great deal of forethought, structure and planning. Who will be using the documents and to what purpose? How shall they be presented, organized and accessed? How do you take an otherwise unwieldy batch of paperwork and give its digital presence coherence and form? The leap from paper to PDF requires strong records management principles and much patience. Depending on the body of documents, digitization projects can take years.
As professional researchers, historians have a vested interest in these kinds of questions and the creation of digital documents. As the trend towards the “digital humanities” continues to expand, historians need to understand the consequences of digital media’s impact on the pursuit of historical research and how this will shape their relationship to the raw materials of our craft.
Take, for example, Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) current project to digitize the 640,000 service files of members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). As part of the centenary commemorations of Canada’s involvement in the First World War, LAC has committed to the digital preservation of their most widely-consulted material, giving Canadians unprecedented access to a rich collection of documents. Every service record contains an average of two or three dozen forms detailing soldier enlistment, training, medical and dental records, hospitalization, discipline and payment, and notifications of discharge or death. Each record represents the life of a soldier, someone’s unknown family member, a personalized story of the past. As a whole, the collection represents an unparalleled opportunity to better understand Canada’s socio-military history—who composed the CEF, why did they join, how did they experience mobilization, sickness, combat and discharge? Digital access to this collection enhances our ability to analyze and better manage its contents. That’s only good news for historians and the greater public.
Sounds great, right? Wait. This is where the journey becomes more important than the destination. In February 2014, LAC announced in a press release that Canadians would be able to research high-quality digital copies of all service records “anytime and anywhere” by 2015. As of April 2016, the project has only reached the letter “H,” proceeding alphabetically by last name. That’s 275,999 out of 640,000 files. New batches of files are uploaded to the database every two weeks, but in the meantime the original papers copies can no longer be consulted during the digitization process. Meanwhile, in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, where similar centenary commemorations are underway, their national service records have already been digitized and made available to the public.
Granted, there are many factors that contribute to the bogging down of large-scale digitization projects. It’s incredibly delicate work and it needs to be completed properly. For a public archival institution, the lack of predictable funding structures, commitment to resources, changes in upper and middle management, and inadequate numbers of staff are particularly egregious problems. But this is exactly why the process of digitization matters. The Centenary of the First World War is a significant opportunity for historians to shape and impact historical consciousness, raise the level of contemporary discourse and address questions of national identity. Beyond the frequently short sound-bytes of information granted by journalists and the media, the availability of the CEF service records is one of the best resources around which historians can shape meaningful discussion. It’s a meaty, tangible artifact that Canadians can sink their teeth into. And yet, given the restricted access to the original documents and the still-sluggish pace of the digitization process, historians have limited access to a valuable resource at precisely the moment when it’s most relevant and needed.
As we continue towards the heralded “information economy,” it’s important to recognize that historical data is equally important as information.
In a turbulent and changing Canada, in search of rootedness and stability, it may be needed more than ever. The CEF service records will inevitably be fully digitized. LAC predicts sometime in 2018—it may even be later. Has an opportunity been missed as the project moves past the final year of the centenary commemorations? Historians don’t receive too many special opportunities to have a captive audience. And on a more fundamental level, what kind of conversations about digitization need to be had amongst academics, archivists and the greater public, the guardians and the beneficiaries of historical information? Does there need to be closer collaboration, or better administrative oversight of digitization? Does political pressure need to be applied in the right places for better funding of digitization projects? As more and more records—crucial pieces of our socio-cultural heritage—continue to undergo digital transformation, it’s important that historians and the greater public embrace its benefits, but also have the foresight to address its many potential challenges.
Brendan O’Driscoll has an MA in History from McGill University. His research interests span broadly across early-twentieth century Canadian and European history, but he has a special soft spot for anything to do with Montreal, the Irish, and that enigma known as “modernity.”