Digital Libraries and National Digitization Programmes: How Does Canada Compare?

By Krista McCracken

Springfield College, Babson Library, Archives and Special Collections, accessed via DPLA

Marsh Memorial Readying Room. Photograph from Babson Library, Archives and Special Collections, accessed via DPLA

National digital library projects and national digitization initiatives have emerged across the world in recent years with varying levels of funding, support, and success.  How does Canada’s national attempts at digitization and open access compare to international efforts to make material freely accessible online?

The example closest to home is the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) which aims to bring together diverse collections of books, images, historical records, artwork, and audio-visual material in a single open access portal. The DPLA currently includes more than 5,700,000 items from libraries, archives, and museums across the United States.

The DPLA access portal is user friendly and there are a variety of ways to explore the collection including a timeline feature, by geographic location, by browsing a virtual bookshelf, or using a  traditional search bar.  Additionally, the DPLA has an open API and has encouraged developer involvement and the hacking of the millions of records in the DPLA.  Some have criticized the DPLA as overlapping existing projects and expressed concern about copyright and the possibility of funding being taken away from traditional libraries.  These criticisms aside the DPLA holds a tremendous amount of information has the potential to be a huge boon to researchers and the general public.

Outside of North America the National Library of Norway recently announced its plans to digitize all the books in the library’s collection. Since the Norwegian Legal Deposit Act requires all published content in Norway to be deposited with the National Library this means the Library is planning to digitize basically every Norwegian publication ever created.  The digitization project began in 2006 and the project completion date is sometime in the 2020s. The only downside for the international community is that open access will be limited to those with a Norway IP address.

Compare Norway’s stride into open access digital content with the United Kingdom’s struggle to create accessible digital content.  The British Library recently announced an internet archive of every UK website.  However, legal and political debates over copyright infringement resulted in the creation of an internet archive that was restricted to on-site access only for individuals with readers’ passes at six major academic libraries in the UK.  Essentially the British Library created an internet archive without internet access.

Other than the non-internet internet archive the British Library has made significant strides towards making digital content accessible.  Millions of pages of historical newspapers from 1800s are available via the British Newspaper Archive and thematic projects like the Endangered Archives Programme, the Renaissance Festival Books, and Dunhuang Project have digitized older out of copyright material from the British Library and international collections.  The British Library has made substantial efforts at providing digital copies of out of copyright material in their holdings and has created web portals that are user friendly and informative.

So how does Canada stack up to international digital library and digitization trends? Currently nothing similar to the DPLA exists in Canada and Library and Archives Canada (LAC) hasn’t announced any plans to make all Canadian published material available online like Norway has.

AMICUS the national Canadian library catalogue allows users to search published material held at LAC and 1300 Canadian libraries.  However AMICUS only contains catalogue records not digital copies. AMICUS tends to be used most widely by librarians and academics, not the general public.

Some thematic digitization projects have been undertaken by LAC including: the Portrait Portal,  Military Heritage digitization, census records, and digitization of specific archival collections held by LAC.   In January LAC announced a plan to digitize 640,000 World War I service files. Despite the rhetoric of modernization that LAC has been promoting for a number of years the cuts to staffing and programming have contributed to a slow pace of digitization.  The controversial digitization partnership between LAC and has started to see some results.  Since June 2013, 2.1 million images created from microfilm of select collections have been made available online via the Héritage portal.

The Portal is very basic and doesn’t include an advanced search function. The descriptions and metadata in the catalogue have been taken directly from the LAC online archival holdings.  In most cases this means the descriptive material isn’t value added to what was already accessible online.

At this point the controversial premium access subscription portion of the project hasn’t been launched.  But the Canadian site does note that the once additional collections have been digitized premium access with enhanced features such as “sophisticated search capabilities making use of enhanced metadata and full-text transcriptions, high-resolution downloads, access to textual data sets for text mining, personal bookshelves and saved searches” will be available.  Essentially all the more advanced research tools, which would be extremely useful to researchers, will be available only if you’re willing to pay for them.  A stark contrast to the DPLA’s policy of open access resources and open API.

Library and Archives Canada has made very specific efforts to make some content available online.  As the Canadiana partnership develops it will be interesting to see if the digitized content is made more accessible to the public and which collections are digitized during the ten year project.  Internationally great leaps have been made at making books and historical records digitally accessible to the general public.  Canada is lagging behind in terms of a national digital library or national digitization strategy.  The results of the Canadiana and LAC partnership may be the first step toward closing the open access and digitization gaps but a significant amount of work still needs to be done.

Krista McCracken is a Researcher/Curator at Algoma University’s Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.  She is a co-editor at

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3 thoughts on “Digital Libraries and National Digitization Programmes: How Does Canada Compare?

  1. Ian Milligan

    Great stuff, Krista – thanks for this overview. The DPLA has a phenomenal API, one of the easiest ones to learn, and I suspect we’ll see a fantastic ecosystem emerging around them. It is a shame that the new premium access model is coming here.

    That being said, I’m hopeful that we’ll get something close to it here in Canada one day. The current Canadiana API is amazing. I wrote an enthusiastic review/how-to guide here:

  2. Krista McCracken

    Thanks for the comment and link to the Canadiana API documentation.

    The LAC/Canadiana Héritage portal is lacking documentation and seems disconnected from the main Canadiana site — so I’m glad you pointed out the API information, I wouldn’t have found it by looking at the Héritage portal.

  3. Dan Gillean

    I’d also like to point out that much of Canada’s efforts to get content online are now happening without LAC. The Canadian Council on Archives has for years maintained the ArchivesCanada portal (, and is currently working with Artefactual Systems to launch a 2.0 version of ArchivesCanada, running Artefactual’s open source Access to Memory software. In essence, these are community archives, library special collections, universities, municipal archives, regional museums, and many other institutions working together with their respective provincial portals, and from there aggregating content at a national level to allow for greater public visibility and access. Coordinated with almost no budget since the elimination of the National Archival Development Program grants, this is an extraordinary grassroots effort to provide free online access to cultural heritage materials. The launch of the new ArchivesCanada portal is expected soon; in the meantime, a preview of the new interface can be seen at Artefactual’s AC-Beta site:

    Dan Gillean
    AtoM Product Manager
    Artefactual Systems

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