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Vol 40  No 10
February 21, 2008


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Memorial archival material gets new life

Unveiling the past
by Jeff Green

Slavko Manojlovich unveils the digital archives. (Photo by Chris Hammond)

Thanks to the efforts of a team of Memorial library staff, more than 80,000 digital objects – ranging from audio and video files to historic maps and books – are now at the fingertips of researchers from around the world.

A new and interactive website – known as the Digital Archives Initiative (DAI) – was unveiled Feb. 18, at a ceremony in the Commons in Memorial’s Queen Elizabeth II Library.

University officials, representatives from the federal and provincial governments, as well as delegates from the heritage and cultural industries were on-hand for the launch.

The new site will allow researchers, scholars, students and the general public to view material – some of which are hundreds of years old and very delicate – housed in Memorial’s archives and library collections without visiting the university. The collection will be free and open to the public through the Internet site.

“Digitization is not only a preservation format but also an access format,” said Slavko Manojlovich, associate university librarian (information technology) and chair of the Digital Archives Advisory Board at Memorial. “This project will open up Memorial’s unique archival collection to the world and bring our items to a new audience.”

The website marks the beginning of a long-term co-ordinated effort at Memorial to digitize the learning and research-based cultural resources housed in various units and departments.

The interactive site includes collections from the Queen Elizabeth II Library, the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, the Archives and Manuscripts Division, the Maritime History Archive, the Faculty of Medicine Founders’ Archive, and the Department of Folklore, amongst others.

Currently, the DAI includes a variety of digitized books, rare Newfoundland maps, the James Ryan (1874-1919) Diaries, Dr. Cluny Macpherson’s Notebooks, the Miawpukek Mi’kmawey Prayer Book, the Newfoundland Quarterly and Material Culture Review journals. Those are in addition to historical photographs, videos and newspapers which together reinforce the importance, past and present, of Newfoundland and Labrador history and culture.

Officials are also currently digitizing every dissertation and thesis at Memorial, providing access to the university’s scholarly research to the global research community.

Mr. Manojlovich said the impetus for the initiative was simple.

“Our archives on campus have collections in various formats which are slowly deteriorating and/or are in a format which is no longer accessible, think paper, 78 rpm phonograph records, reel-to-reel 16 millimetre video, even VHS videos,” he said. “We have one-of-a-kind collections in our archives which are stored under climate controlled conditions. Digitization of these materials provides access to researchers and scholars worldwide.”

Keith Hutchings, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Human Resources, Labour and Employment and MHA for Ferryland, noted Memorial’s concerted efforts to preserve this province’s past.

“I applaud the efforts of all those involved in the remarkable Digital Archives Initiative,” he said. “You have breathed new life into these rare and fragile materials, by preserving and making them available for the generations to come."

Joan Ritcey, head of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial, has also been heavily involved in the DAI project.

She said digitizing archival materials will help ensure the items are around for years to come.

“The consultation of original documents can cause damage, especially if they are already in a fragile state,” Ms. Ritcey said.

“Now, thanks to this initiative, we’ll spare the original from being handled. Legibility of digital documents can be superior to the original, since the font sizes in books can be enlarged and people can zoom in on maps.”

One of the oldest items digitized is the Miawpukek Mi'kmawey Prayer Book, which dates back to the early 19th century.

The manuscript is a collection of Roman Catholic prayers and other ecclesiastical texts written in hieroglyphic symbols unique to the Mi'kmaq tradition. The script is considered the earliest indigenous script in North America north of Mexico.

“This book dates to an early period in the history of the Mi'kmaq when hieroglyphics were developed and introduced by French missionaries to provide a written language,” said Gerald Penney, a consulting archaeologist with nearly a 30-year involvement with the Miawpukek Band in Conne River, N.L.

“This book is one of the very few survivals from this period. From my perspective, its significance is not yet really understood and I feel that its digitizing will provide the opportunity for others to assess not only its significance but also its place within the culture of the Mi'kmaw both past and present.”

Funding for the Digital Archives Initiative was made possible by the President’s Office at Memorial. The digitization of some of the collections was funded by Heritage Canada.

The Digital Archives Initiative can be viewed online at http://collections.mun.ca/

Its launch builds on several projects at Memorial in recent months using interactive online technology to preserve the past.

In October 2007, the Faculty of Medicine launched the virtual exhibit The Early Days of the Medical School at Memorial University. Meanwhile, in January 2008, the Research Centre for the Study of Music, Media and Place (MMaP) – which has produced archival CDs and websites including the MacEdward Leach and the Songs of Atlantic Canada site – moved into a new larger space in the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre.


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