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Portal to open up Canadian political history

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The Parliament of Canada will soon be releasing a portal of all its historical debates. Sébastien Tremblay and Sonia Bebbington reveal how the project came about

A new digital portal in Canada gives free public access to all the historical debates of the Parliament of Canada from 1867 until the mid-1990s, when the Senate and the House of Commons began publishing born-digital versions of debates directly to the Parliament of Canada website.

The portal, which will officially launch in the autumn, aims ‘to provide access to a consolidated collection of digital versions of historical debates of the Parliament of Canada, free to the public at point of use, and in both official languages.’ This content fills a significant gap in the online availability of debates, and the main driver of the project is free public access.

The paper volumes were extracted from collections at Library and Archives Canada and the Library of Parliament, and subsequently imaged by Library and Archives Canada. The portal is being developed in collaboration between the Library of Parliament and Canadiana.org, a membership alliance dedicated to building Canada’s digital preservation infrastructure and providing wide-ranging access to Canadian documentary heritage. Canadiana.org has applied optical character recognition (OCR) to all page images and implemented our metadata requirements. It is also hosting the portal on its servers.

These developments make these key historical documents entirely searchable from home, in a full-text and key word format that the public are likely to find more familiar than the print debates indexes. The portal offers both browse and search functions. The key filters are chamber, parliament, session, year of publication, and language. There is also a full-text search box.

Given the historical scope of the collection, we expect that our primary users will be researchers in and students of topics such as Canadian history, political science, and law. We know, as well, that a number of political journalists are interested in the high ‘searchability’ that the portal provides. In addition, providing full and free access to the public contributes to a more accessible Parliament.

Improving access

The main driver that we use to determine digitisation priorities is access; our aim in all digitisation projects is to increase access to key content. Online access can provide additional and valuable functionality such as faceted searching, full-text searching and text mining.

We see the portal being not just as an access point for the public, but a service tool for our colleagues. As a full-service library to senators, members of parliament and their staff, the ability to search across nearly 150 years of our parliament’s debates is extremely valuable in the provision of reference and research services. We selected the debates as our first mass digitisation initiative because they are the flagship documents of parliament, and are heavily used in responding to research and reference requests.

The Library of Parliament in Ottawa, Canada 

We are also digitising selected series of sessional papers (print documents tabled in the House of Commons each day) to provide immediate, broad access to them among parliamentary clients. This is, again, an entirely access-driven project. These documents are catalogued individually in our Integrated Library System (ILS), and currently housed on our ILS web server.

Eventually, these documents will be moved to a consolidated institutional repository, which we are developing as part of our digital preservation strategy.

In addition, we recently acquired a book scanner and plan to run a pilot project to digitise a selection of rare books and release them in EPUB format. This project will allow us to build a limited internal digitisation capacity and to develop our expertise, learning from concrete experiences of digitising rare book material so we can better define processes and standards.

Digital preservation

As our focus is on parliamentary documents, we are working with books which are, in Canadian libraries, fairly widely available. As such, we do not approach the project as a digitisation-for-preservation initiative (in the sense of decreasing access and handling of a rare print original). However, protecting our digitisation investment through digital preservation is certainly a project requirement.

Concurrently, we are building a small internal digitisation capacity for limited projects, and focusing on gaining experience, and developing standards and guidelines for digitisation. We may find in this programme that we come across materials that should be digitised in order to better preserve a print original, but that is not the main priority of our overall digitisation direction; access is.

Internally, the Library of Parliament is in the process of developing a long-term digital preservation strategy. The strategy proposes a distributed digital preservation model among identified partners (including parliamentary organisations and external partners) to minimise cost, duplication of effort, and risk. The strategy proposes a five-year roadmap that progressively develops and implements the identified digital preservation programme components, including policies and governance, infrastructure and architecture, preservation processes, and change management.

Challenges

For the library’s first mass-digitisation initiative, we have faced typical ‘start-up’ challenges: inexperience with techniques and technologies, lack of highly specialised skills in the field, and the ever-present issue of our resources not matching our aspirations. However, for a first initiative, our debates digitisation and portal development has gone very well. Partnering with external organisations has been key to overcoming our challenges, and has allowed us to gain valuable experience in mass digitisation while minimising the potential project risks.

Sébastien Tremblay is manager, preservation and parliamentary publications management and Sonia Bebbington is director of knowledge management and preservation at the Library of Parliament, Canada