Canada’s Historical Newspaper Digitization Problem, Part 2

standardnewspaperman

Man reading “The Standard” newspaper, 1940s. Source: City of Vancouver Archives

By Sean Kheraj

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a post called “Canada’s Historical Newspaper Digitization Problem” in which I agreed with the findings of a Higher Education Academy study that found that Canada lagged behind the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand in the digitization of historical newspapers. I found that Canada’s online historical newspaper archive is very limited, fragmented, and difficult to access. One of the reasons this became one of the most popular posts on my website was that I included an index of online sources for digitized Canadian newspapers. It turns out that there are a lot of people out there in search of historical Canadian newspapers on the Web and there doesn’t seem to be an adequate national index.

Over the past fifteen years, the limited and fragmented character of Canada’s online historical newspaper archive has had an impact on Canadian history scholarship. As Ian Milligan wrote in Canadian Historical Review last year, “It all seems so orderly and comprehensive.” Yet the incomplete record of digital newspapers in Canada creates an illusion of comprehensive research. With a few keystrokes, we can search any word in any newspaper. Right? As Milligan revealed, not only is the archive limited to a handful of newspapers, the Object Character Recognition software used to make the newspapers text searchable has numerous flaws and limitations. Milligan wrote this article, in part, to call upon historians to think critically about their methodologies when it comes to digital historical scholarship. But his article also raises the important matter of the sorry state of Canada’s digital newspaper archive.

So, how far have we come since I wrote that first post in 2011? I wanted to write this sequel post as a follow-up on the state of the Canadian digital newspaper archive. What follows is an updated list of online historical Canadian newspapers:

  1. NewspaperArchive.com – Just as it was three years ago, NewspaperArchive.com is behind a paywall. This collection includes mainly smaller newspapers from the prairies (and some from Newfoundland). The most valuable resource here seems to be the digital collection of the Winnipeg Free Press from 1874 to the present.
  2. Google Newspaper Archive – This remains one of the largest digital newspaper archives in the world and its Canadian holdings have expanded. I have found a series of Toronto newspapers added within the past year, including The World, The Daily Mail, and a small run of The Daily Telegraph. This is by no means a comprehensive collection, but it is good to finally see something other than Toronto Star. The best way to search this collection is by browsing the list of newspaper titles (although the keyword search is still serviceable).
  3. Pages of the Past (Toronto Star) – One of the most-used digital newspaper archives in Canada, Pages of the Past has now merged with ProQuest Historical Newspapers. The collection will continue to be limited to those with institutional access or private subscriptions, but the search interface is much improved and the load times are faster.
  4. Globe and Mail: Canada’s Heritage from 1844 – Not to be outdone by Toronto Star, Globe and Mail has also merged with ProQuest with similar technical improvements.
  5. British Colonist Archive, 1858-1920 – This collection is still available and still complete. This project is a real hallmark of newspaper digitization in Canada: comprehensive, high-quality, searchable, open access.
  6. Prince George Newspapers Project – This is another fantastic local digitization project with great historical value.
  7. Quesnel Cariboo Observer Archive – The Quesnel Museum has produced a wonderful digital archive for this newspaper. It is yet another excellent resource for BC history, now covering a period from 1908-2012.
  8. Bill Silver Digital Newspaper Archive – This collection has changed its URL, but this link should work. This collection features, The Vanderhoof Herald (1917-1920), Nechako Chronicle (1920-1983), and Omenika Express (1982-1989; 1991-2007).
  9. Jewish Western Bulletin Archive – Spanning a period from 1925-2004, this collection includes all issues and precursors of the JWB.
  10. The Alberta Heritage Digitization Project – Continuing with its great work, the AHDP has added a number of new papers and new issues to its growing collection since I last checked in. You can find a good range of newspapers covering the entire province.
  11. Peel’s Prairie Provinces – Here is another good source for Alberta and other prairie newspapers. The collection is hit or miss, like most others on this list, but it has a pretty good user interface. Also, it has the United Farmers of Alberta newspaper!
  12. Manitobia – Again, we find a great regional collection of digitized newspapers at Manitobia. The collection is not comprehensive, but there are a few gems in there, including the Nor’Wester for much of its pre-Confederation run.
  13. ProQuest Canadian Newsstand – For some reason, I forgot to include this longstanding resource on my previous list. Canadian Newsstand is a subscription-based archive of numerous Canadian newspapers going back to the 1970s. This is a very useful resource for researchers with an interest in late twentieth-century Canadian history.
  14. Paper of Record – This resource seems to be back. I once thought it had vanished from the face of the Internet when Google bought the company in late 2008, but it seems to have returned in the form of a subscription-based product. The coverage for Canada includes a number of newspapers that cannot be found elsewhere. Most provinces are represented (and even one territory!). The collection, like most, is eclectic. There are big chronological gaps here and there and the selection of newspapers spans small-town papers to some of the largest Canadian dailies.
  15. Early Canadian Periodicals – Though not strictly a digital newspaper archive, Canadiana has amassed a wildly eclectic collection of newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals for a period covering the late eighteenth century to 19oo. The final phase of the project will bring the collection up to 1920. This is by far one of the most ambitious Canadian history digitization projects. It is not hyperbole when Canadiana writes that this collection grants, “Canadians unparalleled access to their early print history.”
  16. Nova Scotia Historical Newspapers Online – In 2009-2010, Libraries Nova Scotia led a trial digitization project with regional archives and universities. Since then, they have built up a growing collection of digitized newspapers from Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, many of the links seem to be broken, but some of it still works and it fills in a terrible gap for Maritime newspapers.
  17. Memorial University Digital Collections – MUN has its own digital archive of newspapers, including some of the major dailies from St. John’s. This often neglected corner of British America may find its way onto the radar of more historians with such a digital collection.
  18. Our Ontario Community Newspapers Collection – A reader graciously shared a link to this collection of community newspapers in Ontario. Yet more evidence that great digitization work is happening at the local and community level across Canada. This work also includes many more newspapers here.
  19. Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec Digital Newspaper Collection – For a relatively good selection of French-language newspapers from Quebec and other parts of Canada, you can find many here. Again, the collection is not comprehensive, but there is a lot of material in this collection.
  20. Island Newspapers (UPEI) – Finally, I want to round out this list with the complete 1890-1957 run of The Charlottetown Guardian, the major daily newspaper of Prince Edward Island. Here we have another effort to develop a comprehensive regional newspaper collection with plans for future expansion.

Three years later, the landscape of digital historical newspapers in Canada has expanded, but it looks much the same as it did before. The collection remains incomplete, fragmented, and difficult to access. Most of the great work done thus far has been ad hoc, local, and regional. The British Colonist and Charlottetown Guardian show two examples of regional newspaper digitization projects that have achieved something close to a comprehensive, searchable, and open access archive. Perhaps one day we will see a national group attempt something similar for the entire country. Given the extraordinary work of Canadiana and its early periodicals collection, I still have hope.

If you would like to add a Canadian digital historical newspaper collection to this list, please post your links in the comments section.

Sean Kheraj is an assistant professor in the Department of History at York University. He blogs at seankheraj.com.

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62 thoughts on “Canada’s Historical Newspaper Digitization Problem, Part 2

  1. Sean Kheraj

    Matthew:

    How did I miss this one? I found many of the smaller BC newspapers on my list above from a UBC library index previously. This is obviously a new resource hosted by UBC Library itself. Thanks for sharing the link.

  2. Shirley Tillotson

    Excellent summary of the state of things, Sean. Having been working intensively with most of these sites over the past week, most of them for the first time, I can recommend as a good intellectual workout the lovely fun of figuring out all the features of four or five different newspaper databases in a single day. Who needs brain-training exercises, when such a rich array of different download, scan, search, and selection mechanisms is available? One of my personal “favourites” among the many and various interface features were the index links that actually connect the researcher to two or three issues but show only the date of the first issue in the series. It was a pleasant surprise to find more issues than expected, but still… I think that was in the BC Historical Newspapers. Not sure. It’s all a bit of a blur. And then there’s the special joy that comes from knowing that at least two of these interfaces will be “improved” by the next time I use them. I’m inclined to say “familiarity is the best feature, folks,” but I can’t deny that the new Proquest interface for the Toronto Globe and Toronto Star is a big improvement over the nearly brain dead and zombie-slow one it replaced. End of rant.

  3. Daniel Joseph Samson (@ruralcolonialNS)

    This is fabulous aid for a messy subject. I’ve also seen Digital Kingston – http://www.digitalkingston.ca – which gets at (at least) two colonial papers, the Kingston Chronicle and the British Whig. They’re included in the general searching, and you can’t browse, but the keyword searching has served my students well over the past few years.

    Maybe these show up elsewhere, but it all goes to reinforce your point that digital newspapers are “incomplete, fragmented, and difficult to access”.

    Thanks for this.

  4. Sean Kheraj

    Shirley:

    I share your frustrations (and I am sure we are not alone). This, I think, is the major problem of the fragmentation of the Canadian digital newspaper archive, as it stands today. Because there are so many different individual digitization projects, there is no single standard for the user interface, search, OCR quality, scan quality, or even file type. Most projects seem to have settled on PDF scans as a standard, but the web viewers can be quite variable. The BC Newspaper collection Matthew linked seems to have a very smooth web interface, but I’m mostly satisfied when I can download a PDF scan directly and quickly.

    We need make use of best practices models for digitization when it comes to newspapers until we get a national digital archive.

  5. Sean Kheraj

    Daniel:

    Thanks so much for this reference! Although there appears to be no mechanism for browsing, the search is quite robust. There seems to be an excellent searchable database. I was quickly able to find this outstanding letter to the editor for my own work on animals and cities:

    Letter to the editor from “Capeso” complaining of dogs in church, Kingston Chronicle, 5 November 1817, pg. 3.
    http://www.digitalkingston.ca/kfplvw-app/images/whig/11_05_1819_3.pdf

  6. Jane MacNamara

    Great list. Be cautious with Google News and its careless grouping of papers with similar names. For example, the British Colonist is presented as one masthead, but includes unrelated issues from Toronto, Halifax, and Stanstead, Quebec. Very disappointing that Google hasn’t done more with these.

  7. Sean Kheraj

    Jane:

    Very good point. The Google Newspaper Archive is extremely messy and occasionally disorganized. Very surprising for a company like Google, but this is obviously not a priority.

  8. laniwurm

    Ditto what Jane said about the Google archive. The Vancouver Sun is listed under 7 different titles. Also, unless they’ve changed their minds, Google ended the program and hasn’t added to the archive since 2011, and it seems that they recently made functionality worse (keywords are no longer highlighted, making it harder and more time-consuming to find what you’re looking for). http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/05/google-shuts-down-newspaper-archive-project/239239/

  9. Jess Posgate

    This is fabulous, Sean, thanks! Just to clarify about No. 18 and Dan Samson’s comment about Digital Kingston: The Ontario Community Newspaper portal is at news.ourontario.ca (it’s sister site is ink.ourontario.ca) and contains more than 1 million newspaper pages plus a significant body of human generated metadata (e.g. Birth, Marriage and Death and article-level indexes). Recent additions include 24 publications from the Multicultural History Society of Ontario from across Canada searchable in more than 10 languages such as Inuktitut, Armenian, Gujarati, Hindi, and Gaelic and more.
    The Kingston newspapers (British Whig, Kingston News, and variants) are presently in process with OurDigitalWorld, and soon approximately 75,000 full text searchable pages will be included in the Digital Kingston news site vitacollections.ca/digital-kingston/ and flow into the Ontario Community News portal as well.
    This collection continues to grow exponentially as digitization projects are accomplished and the single search site at news.ourontario.ca aggregates content from across diverse content and material for keyword discovery and lots of browse and faceting options.

  10. Shirley Tillotson

    Ah, national standards — our fugitive dream! I wonder if the CHA has lobbied the national librarian, head of library and archives Canada, about this. Librarians, god only knows, have enough troubles these days, but they might be working on this. Presumably they have a national organization. Federal-provincial relations may get in the way, but it’s worth checking in with librarian friends to see what’s up with them on this. Surely we (that’s the Canadian “we”) can do better.

  11. Sean Kheraj

    laniwurm:

    Very good point about the state of the Google News Archive. I had noticed that the keyword searching had basically vanished. I was glad to see some digitized issues of the Vancouver Sun (a terrible hole in the digital newspaper archive in Canada), but these copies are incomplete and difficult to use.

  12. Sean Kheraj

    Jess:

    Thanks for jumping in here. The digital newspaper coverage for Ontario is definitely getting better and news.ourontario.ca is another good example of a broader regional effort to index the digital newspaper archive for the province.

  13. John

    Newspapers.com, a subscription site, now has the Ottawa Journal, 1885-1980, and the Winnipeg Tribune, 1890-1949. Ancestry.ca has the Ottawa Journal as page images.
    The Almonte Gazette, 1869-1989, is online through a cooperative project of the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum and Almonte Public Library, http://mvtm.ca/mvtm/?page_id=2759

  14. Wendy Smith

    At the top of my wish-list are the earliest Upper Canadian newspapers — most especially the UPPER CANADA GAZETTE (1793-1849), which is available as microfilm at the Toronto Reference Library, but as far as I know has never been digitized.

  15. Pat Javor

    For anyone researching ancestors who served in the Canadian Armed Forces in WWII, the Maple Leaf, the newspaper published for the Canadian Armed forces (issues published between January 1944 and May 1946) is available as part of the Google Newspaper Archive here: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=MIUEjqm7qCUC . While not searchable, by scanning issues published before/on/after key dates, I found my father interviewed and quoted in an article published on D-Day.

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  17. Kerrie Anne Christian

    I live in Australia and the digitisation of Australian newspapers by the National Library of Australia’s Trove Team has been a fantastic exercise. People are tagging, correcting OCR glitches, creating lists on Trove – a fantastic crowd-sourcing exercise. I hope you get to have something similar in Canada one day. Links – http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/home .

  18. Sean Kheraj

    Wendy:

    UCG is also foremost on my wish list. It is such an important publication for early Ontario and Canadian history and it is available on microfilm. Yet, it has not been digitized. It is a great example of the incomplete character of Canada’s digital newspaper archive.

  19. Sean Kheraj

    Pat:

    That is an amazing research discovery. This is why these records are so valuable and why expanding access through digitization is important.

  20. Sean Kheraj

    Kerrie Anne:

    Thanks for sharing the link to this Australian newspaper digitization project. This could be a very good model. It looks great!

  21. Sean Kheraj

    Lara:

    Thanks for sharing that Canadian War Museum resource. It is very helpful to have this kind of curated digital resource. Often, digital newspaper archives rely solely on keyword search as a curation method. We forget sometimes that the often painstaking work of manually indexing such resources is hugely valuable to research.

  22. Rod McFarland

    Hi, I’m the coder behind BC Historical Newspapers. I can answer technical questions and/or defend implementation decisions about our site. It hasn’t changed much since its launch, but there are plans to update the reading interface (similar to the BC Bibliography site at http://bcbib.library.ubc.ca) and to integrate it into a larger UBC digital collections site over the next 1-2(…3?) years.

  23. Donald Moses

    Sean: thanks for including http://islandnewspapers.ca/ and for sharing the list of sites. We’ve learned a lot while developing the project. We created a set of workflows to process the newspaper page images and stored the resulting content in Fedora[1]. We use Islandora[2] for asset management, display, and discovery … it is a great open source framework that includes a basic “newspaper solution pack” [3]. If others in the community need help to get started we’d be happy to share our experiences.
    Donald

    [1] http://www.fedora-commons.org/
    [2] http://islandora.ca … code at https://github.com/islandora
    [3] https://github.com/Islandora/islandora_solution_pack_newspaper

  24. Ian Milligan

    As if on cue, Google has apparently just re-worked its historical news archive and re-launched it today. Looks like you can now search by newspaper, and get a good sense of their holdings. I suspect that doesn’t fix all the problems, but it’s a promising move.

    http://news.google.com/newspapers

    Looking forward to exploring it and discovering what it looks like.

  25. Sean Kheraj

    Rod:

    No need to defend your work. All of these newspaper digitization projects are challenging and often conducted on limited resources. Each one is making an important contribution to Canadian history and as a historical researcher, I greatly appreciate your work.

  26. Sean Kheraj

    John:

    I had previously come across the Winnipeg Tribune and Ottawa Journal in Paper of Record. The Almonte Gazette, however, is a terrific find! Thanks so much for adding it to this thread.

  27. Sean Kheraj

    Donald:

    islandnewspapers.ca is a fantastic resource and I am happy to have discovered it for this list. Thanks also for adding those additional resources. I’m sure the ActiveHistory.ca editors would love an article about this digitization workflow for newspaper archiving projects. You should write one and submit it for publication on this site.

  28. Sean Kheraj

    Ian:

    Yes, I notice some cosmetic changes, but the keyword searching for historical newspapers is still missing. Also, I believe you could search by newspaper title previously. I may be wrong.

    It is quite a shame that the search service seems to have ended. This was a powerful tool that, with time, could have become an Ngram Viewer for newspapers. In fact, last year I was able to do some work with this archive and discovered some incredible sources that would not otherwise have been possible. Also, my early work on oil pipeline spills in Alberta relied, in part, on this search functionality.

  29. Rod McFarland

    Sean: “defend” in the thesis sense; I’m actually quite proud of what we achieved with the tools and resources that we have (basically CONTENTdm, a programmer and a web designer; digitization is in a separate unit). Things like article-level indexing are out, and the OCR can always be better. But I did make a pretty all right viewer, IMO.

  30. Barry Spinner, executive of the Toronto Branch of the Ont. Genealogical Society.

    Because the Toronto Telegram is a key unindexed historical newspaper, I searched the Google site. And there were hits!!

    Sadly, Google has mis-titled a small run of The (Quebec) 1837 Telegraph as the `Toronto Telegram`!

  31. Sean Kheraj

    Barry:

    I’m glad you had some luck with the Google Newspaper Archive and the Telegram. This is a big missing piece in Toronto history. I’m having similar challenges with the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal.

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  34. Bev Place Walkling

    Thanks to Pat Javor for the information about the google archive of The Maple Leaf. From my Dad’s war letters I knew approximate dates and found an article describing the work of his field dressing station.

  35. Rhys Stevens

    Another resource: Southern Alberta Newspaper Collection (http://digitallibrary.uleth.ca/cdm/landingpage/collection/sanews). “The Southern Alberta Newspaper Collection contains locally digitized content from the following historical newspapers: Alberta Star, Barons Enterprise, Barons Globe, Cardston News, Cardston Record, Kainai News, Lethbridge News, Macleod Advertiser, Macleod Chronicle, Macleod Gazette, Macleod News, Macleod Spectator, Magrath Pioneer, Milk River Review & Sun Dance Echo.”

    I’ve plotted many of these on a map indicating locations of those that have been digitized (http://libguides.uleth.ca/Southern_Alberta_historical_newspaper_map).

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  37. Sean Kheraj

    Rhys, Niall, and Ben:

    Thanks so much for adding these resources to the list. I hoped that this post would generate this kind of feedback. Ben, you should let your students know to check out the links in the comments.

  38. Jason Ellis

    (I think my first one didn’t go through.)

    Dear Active Historians

    A student in one my classes is interested in finding an English-language newspaper belonging to an immigrant group from the first half of the 20th century that is digitized. E.g. a Ukrainian newspaper written in English, digitized. (She is especially interested in Ukrainians in Winnipeg.)

    The project will look at the history of immigrant working-class, especially radicals’ views on public schooling. They need not be Winnipeg’s Ukrainians, but she is looking for a non-English-speaking immigrant group with a historically significant radical tradition (e.g. — but not limited to — Ukrainians, Jews, Finns.)

    If you wish to email me privately, my email is: j.ellis@ubc.ca

    Jason Ellis, PhD. Department of Educational Studies, UBC.

  39. Will Scheibler

    Old Fulton NY Postcards
    http://fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html
    has some years of some Canadian newspapers – Markdale Standard, Victoria Daily Colonist, Newmarket Ontario Courier, New Market Era, North York Express Harold, North York Sentinel

    Canadian Community Digital Archives has some years of the Sudbury Star along with some years of a handful of newspapers:
    http://www.communitydigitalarchives.com/newspapers.html

    University of Manitoba site has the Winnipeg Tribune for 1890-1950. (sometimes really slow in bringing up image, sometimes times out).
    http://digitalcollections.lib.umanitoba.ca/islandora/object/uofm%3A1243378

  40. Kyle

    I’m surprised there is not a Vancouver Sun historical Archives available anywhere in a sensible way.

    It’s 2015 and you’d think these big companies would see past their dollars to do something good for humanity for a change such as providing access.

    Pro Quest is good and has a clean interface with the drop down menu but it’s limited to library institutions thus being a *walled garden*.

    Due to the rise of smart phones the web has become far more closed with *controlled* news and websites are almost unheard of outside of some bozo’s blog about whatever.

    WWW sites are hard to come by unless it’s marketing.

  41. Sean Kheraj

    Sorry I haven’t checked in on the comments on this post in a while. Glad to see that Donica is keeping a new updated list on her website. Thanks to everyone who has kept posting sources!

  42. Philippa Morris

    Thank you. I had been totally unable to make any sense of it at all – and am relieved to find it isn’t just me!

  43. Jason Ellis

    Here’s a new problem: ProQuest Archiver will at the end of this month cease to provide the Toronto Star Pages of the Past to individual subscribers on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis. Like others, I use this service to access the Star because my university’s library is not an institutional subscriber. Does anyone out there know how I might access the Toronto Star Pages of the Past after ProQuest Archiver ceases to carry it? Thanks–Jason (you can email me at j.ellis@ubc.ca)

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