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Treasured collections

Libraries' Digital Archive Initiative 'meaningful' to many

By Kristine Power

Don Walsh remembers the first collection he scanned as a digitization services technician for Memorial University Libraries’ Digital Archive Initiative (DAI).

It was two notebooks belonging to the province’s renowned physician Cluny MacPherson, inventor of the gas mask during the First World War.

The notebooks, dating from the late 1800s, remain protected and preserved in the Faculty of Medicine’s Founders’ Archive in the Health Sciences Library, but the digital copies are available online for researchers from around the world to discover – thanks to the DAI.

More than two million

At its inception, the DAI had 200 digital items.

It now has more than two million items with new content being added regularly. Ten student assistants work roughly 84 hours a week scanning new material; three staff members process and upload those scans to the archive.

“One of the main things we take pride in is the public accessibility of the collection,” explained Mr. Walsh. “It is there for those doing research, or even for people who are just browsing through interesting content.”

There are about 57,000 downloads from the DAI every month. From books and maps to photographs, periodicals and video and audio content, the DAI hosts a variety of collections, which together reinforce the importance, past and present, of Newfoundland and Labrador’s history and culture.

Don Walsh
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“I have actually received emails from people who have said that they get up in the morning and have their coffee and go to our recent uploads tab to see what new and interesting stuff has been uploaded,” said Mr. Walsh.

Top Google search

The DAI is a portal to the rare and treasured archival resources of Memorial University and other partnering organizations. Mr. Walsh uses the example of the Mercantile Navy List collection to show just how important the DAI can be for researchers.

The Mercantile Navy List, a comprehensive listing of all merchant vessels registered under the British Flag, is one of the most important reference tools for anyone researching the history of British merchant shipping.

The listing resides in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences’ Maritime History Archive. There are only two copies of the list in the world; Memorial’s copy is the only one digitized.

Interestingly, thanks to recent site mapping by Google, the DAI is one of the first hits searchers get when researching on one of the world’s top search engines.

“We have a whole basement of newspapers that I would love to get my hands on and start digitizing.” — Don Walsh

New machinery, new technology and maintaining excellence in digital preservation techniques are top of mind for Mr. Walsh as the new decade begins.

Efforts to continuously add new and important historical resources to the DAI may get easier in the near future. Emerging technology like microfilm scanners allow for automation of the conversion of microfiche into digital format. This will make scanning microfilm very fast.

Digitizing daily newspapers on microfilm like the Evening Herald which ran from 1882-1920 can take years, explains Mr. Walsh.

“Right now we have about 7,700 issues scanned, but we still have to scan six more years. It has taken almost a year to do it, but with this new automatic scanner we should be able to that in a month or two. We have a whole basement of newspapers that I would love to get my hands on and start digitizing.”

Every digital addition to the DAI is the result of foresight, planning, collaboration and expertise from various areas of the libraries.

“It’s amazing how much work we have managed to do in the last 10 years,” said Mr. Walsh. “And we are proud of how many different people find so many different things on the DAI that they are interested in and that’s meaningful to them is some way.”

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