Digital Accessibility of Canadian History

by Krista McCracken on January 27, 2011

The desire to make Canadian history more accessible to the general public is nothing new. Accessibility takes many forms: educational programming, the use of photographs to spur interest in a subject, opening archives to the general public, and the use of technology to bring history resources to a wider audience.

Technology is used widely in the heritage field to increase accessibility.  Technology has facilitated the creation of publicly available history databases, an increased digital presence of heritage institutions, and the development of heritage specific digital tools.

There has been a rise in history databases designed for the general public. These databases often contain images and primary sources which were previously restricted to academics.  Increased accessibility of primary sources assists academic research, genealogy, and the work of amateur historians.  Increasingly, digital archival holdings are open to everyone regardless of professional qualifications.

Canadian history resources available online which fit this model of sharing primary source material with everyone include: The Canadiana Discovery Portal, Our Ontario, Artefacts Canada, and Canada’s Historic Places Index.  These sites are aggregate databases and draw on the collections and resources of multiple heritage institutions.  Additionally, their interfaces are based on the search functionality of Google instead of the setup of traditional scholarly databases.  These databases are designed to be user friendly and provide the general public with a simple way to search reputable sources.

Additionally, digital technology has allowed museums and other heritage facilities to increase their online presence.  Virtual exhibits, online collection catalogues, and general information about facilities are common on museum websites.

For example, the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) website contains information on current physical exhibitions, education material, and their collection is searchable. The website also features online exhibits which are completely digital born.  These digital exhibits highlight interesting topics in Canadian history, unique items in the CMC’s collection, and supplement the physical exhibitions of the institution.  Additionally, the virtual exhibits allow people who may not have the opportunity to visit the museum a chance to explore and learn more about the CMC.

What about your local museum or archive? Despite budget constrains many smaller heritage facilities have begun to digitize their collections and are creating their own virtual presence.  This increased virtual presence is often created through use of social media, website revamping, and the creation of digital exhibits.  Our Ontario and Artefacts Canada are free to contribute to and are used by a number of smaller institutions.  There is also a variety of open source software available to heritage institutions wishing to create virtual exhibits or display information online.

The recently released Oral Historian’s Digital Toolbox created by The Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University includes applications which could be utilized by heritage institutions.  It contains open source products such as Omeka, Stories Matter, and Audacity which facilitate the manipulation and display of heritage material.  These and other open source options are a great way for small institutions to overcome budget constrains and begin their own digital initiatives.

Overall, the increased availability of history databases, museum websites, and open source options reflect the desire for digital accessibility within the heritage field.

Krista McCracken is a public history consultant currently working as an Archives Technician at the Residential School Centre at Algoma University.

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