Canada’s Historical Newspaper Digitization Problem, Part 2

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

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. – Just as it was three years ago, 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. Biblioth̬que et Archives nationales du Qu̩bec Digital Newspaper Collection РFor 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.

Leave a Reply

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