VIU is ready to digitize part of history. (Vancouver Island University photo)

VIU is ready to digitize part of history. (Vancouver Island University photo)

VIU taking lead in digitizing old newspapers to preserve history

To digitize the Nanaimo Daily Free Press (1874-1928) and Cowichan Leader (1905-1928)

By Rae-Anne LaPlante

Who are we without our stories?

It is in sharing our stories — our history — that we build our connection to community.

Ben Hyman, University Librarian at Vancouver Island University, hopes to strengthen residents’ connections to their community by making the stories of Nanaimo and the Cowichan Valley’s early history easily accessible to the public.

The VIU Library and Special Collections is making steps towards that goal with their recently awarded $40,000 grant. The grant, $15,000 cash and the remainder in-kind and equipment, was generously given by the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at the University of British Columbia and its British Columbia History Digitization Program.

“The funds will support a project that is critical for historians, genealogists, and others, but existed only on microfilm until now,” says Hyman.

The resources will be used over the next 11 months by the VIU Library to digitize the Nanaimo Daily Free Press (1874-1928) and Cowichan Leader (1905-1928); something that has never been done before. Currently the only option for the public to access this content is by combing articles through microfilms. The existing copies are becoming more difficult to use as the microfilm continues to deteriorate and readers are becoming scarcely available. Librarians at VIU will digitally preserve these memories to make available online for free in perpetuity.

“Newspapers are a fantastic source of information about our province’s development and we are pleased to be able to support projects like VIU’s which make B.C.’s rich history freely available for all to enjoy,” says Bronwen Sprout, head of the Digital Programs and Services department at the UBC Library.

1874 marks the year the City of Nanaimo became incorporated and saw the first publication of the Nanaimo Free Press. Vancouver Island’s second-oldest newspaper was published daily for the next 14 years. The 50 reels of microfilm to be digitized include stories of many “firsts” of the community; such as first civic elections, school, and hospital. “This stretch of time charts the rise and fall of the mining industry, including strikes and disasters, and Robert Dunsmuir’s land acquisitions and businesses,” Hyman adds.

The Cowichan Leader (1905-1928) shares stories of the rapid growth and change of the Cowichan Valley caused by the increase of European settlers.

The newspaper collections were specifically selected to be digitized as they are both at-risk collections because the publications have ceased, neither owner maintains their own archive, and there was no digital preservation plan in place. Once the content is preserved it will be made available to the public through tools such as Google Scholar, various library indexes, and the BC Digital Library.

The project is supported by the Nanaimo Archives, Vancouver Island Regional Library, and the Nanaimo Historical Society. Christine Meutzner, manager of the Nanaimo Archives, says the project has come at the perfect time.

“Last year, we acquired thousands of original Daily News photographs and are currently organizing, describing, and digitizing this massive collection. The combined collection of newspapers and photographs will create a very powerful regional history resource,” Meutzner adds.

This initiative will support the library’s goal of developing capacity for production-scale digitization at VIU. The library will continue its efforts by digitizing yearly based on non-copyrighted material available. Hyman says the department hopes to “turn the library inside out” by making its physical content easily accessible through online access.

“We are looking to build both skills and workflow across campuses in order to efficiently support open-access digitization of larger local- and B.C.-focused collections, with software that supports automation, and with internal staff capacity. We hope to advance our position of the VIU Library and Special Collections to serve as the digitization hub in the mid-island region,” Hyman says.

The digital archives of Nanaimo Free Press and Cowichan Leader will be made available online by April 2019.

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