Monday, November 10, 2008


A massive digital project:
The ink on cherished family photos and letters from loved ones who fought in the Great War has faded in the 90 years since the Armistice. But modern technology has made "leaps and bounds" in an effort to preserve rare artifacts and changing the way we access our collective history.

Traditionally, all military records have been stored in vast and dingy warehouses by Libraries and Archives Canada in Ottawa [see their military resources here]. Digging up the intimate details about veterans used to include a trip to the capital, an appointment with an archivist and not to mention countless hours of sifting through stacks of dusty old documents.

Since the late 1990s however, tens of thousands of official military files and first-hand accounts of war have been restored, digitized and permanently archived to the web.

Now, the personal journeys of soldiers can easily be explored with the click of a mouse from a family living room or local library.

Preservation technology has taken "leaps and bounds" thanks to digital media, said Gordon Jung, a web specialist for Libraries and Archives Canada.

Thanks to Jung and a team of about 10 archivists at the library, nearly 1,600 hours of audio and video conversations with veterans long since passed can be accessed through the "Heroes Remember" online catalog.

Photos, handwritten diaries and letters continue to pour in from across the country and are being uploaded to the web regularly.

The artifacts offer a rare glimpse into the horrors of trench warfare and the camaraderie of soldiers for Canadians living decades later.

But historian's work is never done and the web team at Libraries and Archives Canada has only begun to scratch the surface.

"We're playing catch up," Jung said.

Of the more than 10,000 First World War photographs handed over by the Ministry [er, Department] of [National] Defence to Jung and his team, only 2,200 have been uploaded to the web. There are literally thousands more private family photos to collect and post as well.

"It's like a detective work trying to find them all," Jung said, adding sometimes the task seems "daunting."

But producing good quality replicas is critical, he said.

"A good storage facility will keep the physical artifacts stable for a decent amount of time," he said. "But things wear out so we want a least one digitized copy of the original."

Eventually all the nitrate reels, negatives and handwritten originals will be locked away for good because they'll be too brittle for use.

Documenting each different war presents unique challenges for archivists. Each era's passing technology means they must adapt their safeguarding techniques.

Photos from the First World War require extra care. They are among the rarest and most fragile because of the limited camera technology of the time.

"As you go through the mid 20th and 21st centuries we produce more and more documentation as a society, and it can be overwhelming," Jung said.

But the biggest challenge, Jung said, is not having the right tools for the job.

"I've realized you can't throw away your old tape recorder, or your old vinyl record player, or your old eight track machine," he said.

Even a reel in mint condition is useless if you don't have the means to play it, he said.

"If you decide to throw away a technology, oh boy, you better digitize it first."

Jung estimates he spent at least 80 per cent of his time for six months working on the oral histories for the "Canadian Virtual War Memorial" now available on the Veterans Affairs website.

The memorial is an online registry with files on the more than 116, 000 Canadians who died in service during the First and Second World Wars and another 1,500 who have died since the Korean War.

A wartime letter written by Captain Bellenden S. Hutcheson found in an old family trunk in 1989 and later uploaded to the web is just one example of how the archives are bringing forgotten stories back from the grave.

In it, Hutcheson vividly describes tending to the fallen in the First World War battle at Vimy Ridge.

"The gas used that day was the deadly sweetish smelling phosgene. It was my first experience with gas in warfare," wrote Hutcheson.

"The whole thing seemed rather unreal, particularly when it occurred to me, busy as I was, that the killing was being done deliberately and systematically."
More remembering at Vimy:
Vimy Ridge ceremony commemorates the fallen
Another very useful website: the "Canadian Military History Gateway". Plus, of course, the Canadian War Museum.


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