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Building a Regional Digital Repository in British Columbia

18 Feb 2020 10:00 AM | Anonymous member

The Okanagan Valley is situated approximately 400 km inland from B.C.'s South Coast. At the centre of the north-south trajectory of the Valley is Kelowna, which is home to the second campus of the University of British Columbia (after the first, in Vancouver). This strategic location, in combination with the human and digital infrastructure resources provided by the UBC Okanagan Library and generous donor funding have made the Digitized Okanagan History project possible. 

For three years the authors have coordinated an effort based at the UBC Okanagan Library to assist memory institutions located in communities throughout the Okanagan region to realize their own goals of digitization, systematic metadata development, and provision of access to selected portions of their archival holdings. Digitized Okanagan History (D.O.H.) now includes over 100,000 digital objects drawn from 29 partners located in a catchment area extending from Sicamous in the north to Osoyoos in the south and Princeton in the west to Grand Forks in the east.   

Curling on the Kettle River, ca. 1930. 

Image courtesy of Kettle River Museum. 

Recognizing that limited financial and technical resources prevented many community repositories from using evolving web-based tools to promote access to their unique historical resources, D.O.H.’s primary goal has been to build, customize, and sustain a complement of technical infrastructure and supporting procedures and workflows to allow a broad cross-section of regional partners to participate in a multi-institutional collaboration. This ensures that their relatively unknown or under-utilized primary historical records are made more broadly accessible in support of all levels of research through a single, integrated online portal. 

Preliminary discussions with prospective project partners began in 2016. Immediately, the considerable breadth and depth of candidates for digitization became apparent. In step with this reported abundance, a counterpoint emerged equally as quickly: most community repositories faced significant operational challenges mostly relating to lack of money and staff. In fact, many of the organizations rely exclusively or primarily on a dedicated but unpredictable volunteer workforce to keep their doors open. This made it imperative that the bar to D.O.H. participation be kept as low as possible. When the project began implementation in 2017 a team of students travelled to participating repositories and spent three days scanning analogue material and collecting copies of existing digitized material at each repository. As stronger relationships developed with project partners and trust has grown, D.O.H. has adopted a model where almost all material is transported to the UBCO campus for digitization, or, for post-digitization processing. This approach is much more efficient and allows for greater productivity. Early D.O.H. efforts focussed on digitizing photographic material but, based on the priorities of the project partners, the scope has expanded to archival documents, maps, and audio recordings, as well as and newspapers and other publications.  

Group of School Children on Joe Glaicar's School Bus, ca 1922.  

Image courtesy of Armstrong Spallumcheen Museum and Arts Society.

D.O.H. selected Arca, the B.C. Electronic Library Network’s repository platform to host the new regional digital resources. Built on Islandora's open-source content management software, Arca allows both for the ability to steward and maintain descriptive information and facilitate searches limited to specific repositories, and universal searches across all participating repositories. This is important for allowing project partners to see the distinctiveness of their repository and their collections as a subset of the portal, discoverable through the browse function, while at the same time providing comprehensive access to all available records for those doing systematic research. Just as Arca allows for aggregation of our many project partners via the D.O.H. ‘subaggregator’ hub, D.O.H. itself is one of many institutional partners in Arca and benefits from the support of an active community of practice with knowledge exchange and reciprocal sharing of tools and strategies.  

In charting D.O.H.’s future we are currently planning a transition from a mediated model of digitization to a more distributed model wherein we would provide project partners with training and guidelines for scanning their own material and compiling basic, standardized metadata which can then be sent to the UBCO Library for upload. To augment digital copies of the unique archival holdings from the region and to create a more comprehensive historical research resource we are also adding a newspaper repository to D.O.H. Newspapers are consistently identified by project partners as the single-most important source for documenting local history, and community newspapers provide a treasure trove of information and represent prime candidates for digitization, particularly if they are full- text searchable. Finally, based on the success of D.O.H. we are exploring the creation of a parallel regional collection in the neighbouring Kootenay/Columbia area. This region is defined by its adjacency to the Columbia River Basin; it being contiguous with the Boundary region (which is the eastern most area currently represented in D.O.H.) inclusion of the Kootenays and Columbias has the potential to provide digital coverage to a significant portion of B.C.’s geography, much of which is truly rural and variably, sometimes only seasonally, accessible.  This past summer we collected copies of digitized material from seven Kootenay/Columbia repositories and expect that the parallel pilot regional collection will be launched in September 2020.  

Group photograph at Women's Institute of the Okanagan District, 1914.

Image courtesy of Summerland Museum and Archives.

Despite significant challenges, community memory institutions have done a commendable job in identifying and preserving the unique records documenting their local histories. D.O.H., through its efforts to enhance public access to archival resources across multiple Okanagan repositories, builds on the work done at the individual community level and will help ensure that the resources are made available for a multitude of historical uses. Our hope is that D.O.H. has laid a broad and deep foundation not only for the creation of a network of digitized archival material but also to support further collaborative activity in the future so that the challenges of preserving local historical resources can be approached in a more holistic, coordinated manner. 

Chris Hives & Paige Hohmann 

Chris Hives is UBC University Archivist, Emeritus and for over three years now he, along with Paige Hohmann, has co-ordinated Digitized Okanagan History. He is very much looking forward to expanding the original Okanagan-based collaborative digitization project to include partners in a new parallel collection in the neighbouring Kootenay/Columbia region.

Paige Hohmann is Archivist at UBC Okanagan where she manages various primary source and special information resources with focus on digitized and born-digital media. She has coordinated the Digitized Okanagan History project with Chris Hives since 2016.

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