‘One fire away’: Why Ontario communities are digitizing their newspapers

As COVID-19 accelerates the closure of publications across the province, there’s a growing sense of urgency to make sure records of local history survive
By Marsha McLeod - Published on Dec 09, 2020
Cornwall’s Standard-Freeholder archives exist largely on microfilm. (Courtesy of the Cornwall Community Museum)

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In the spring of 2017, Allan J. MacDonald set out to preserve fragile copies of Glengarry County’s newspapers in a more permanent location: the internet. With 25 years of experience at the Archives of Ontario behind him, MacDonald had the right skills for the delicate task. So, nearly a decade into his retirement, he tackled the job as Glengarry’s county archivist — a volunteer role.

Over four months, MacDonald prepared more than 25,000 newspaper pages for digitization, working in a 4,000-square-foot space inside the Glengarry District High School. Five days a week, he carefully cut volumes from their bindings, unfolded dog-eared pages, repaired tears, and placed completed pages into large acid-free folders — making use of nearly two kilometres of archival tape in the process. 

With the help of a vendor, which digitized each page, the collection is now available on the Glengarry County Archives’ website; the earliest editions date back to 1887 for the now-defunct Glengarrian and to 1892 for the Glengarry News.

stacks of file boxes
Microfilm reels from the archives of the Standard-Freeholder are being stored at the Cornwall Community Museum. (Courtesy of the Cornwall Community Museum) 

“What kept me going was the fact that this is a difference-maker,” MacDonald says. “Putting a newspaper online that goes back to the 19th century — that’s a huge, huge step forward with information to the public.”

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In 2018, inspired by MacDonald’s efforts, Eric Duncan, former mayor of North Dundas, began championing a wider digitization project in the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry. A year later, Duncan pitched the county council on a plan to digitize each of the counties’ newspapers and create a text-searchable, online archive. That project, estimated to cost about $200,000, is now well underway. Then, last month, Duncan took a similar idea to the council of the nearby city of Cornwall. 

“We are one fire away in a few different spots, potentially, of wiping out generations of our history,” Duncan, who was elected MP for the riding of Stormont–Dundas–South Glengarry in 2019, told Cornwall’s council — adding, though, that he was speaking not so much as an MP, but as a member of a volunteer committee that was formed last year to shepherd a digitization project in the city.

Projects such as these have become increasingly urgent as COVID-19 accelerates the closure of local and community newspapers across Ontario, throwing the preservation of their archives into doubt.

“Hopefully, we can serve as a template or a model for other counties or areas elsewhere that are thinking of and talking about it, and they can see that it can get done,” Duncan says.

file drawers
Photo negatives from the archives of the Standard-Freeholder are being stored at the Cornwall Community Museum. (Courtesy of the Cornwall Community Museum) 

In Cornwall, council voted to direct the administration to write a report on how the city and committee could collaborate on the project over the next two budget cycles; it expects that document in the near future. Duncan has suggested that the city kick off the project by funding the digitization of the Cornwall Seaway News in the 2021 budget, which will be voted on in the new year.

The hope is to digitize three local papers: the Cornwall Standard-Freeholder, le Journal de Cornwall, and the Seaway News. While print copies of the weekly Seaway News are stored in tote bins, labelled by year throughout the publication’s 35-year history, the Standard-Freeholder archives will be more complicated to digitize, as they largely exist on microfilm, which produces lower-quality images than paper does.

Response to the projects in SD&G has been very positive, Duncan says: “We’ve had people reach out when they see what we’re doing [and say], ‘Oh, I have five years’ worth of papers!’”

In one case, Duncan notes, a former newspaper editor donated 10 years’ worth of papers that he’d kept stored in his basement. In another, a couple donated decades of issues of the Iroquois Chieftain to the Dundas County Archives: one evening, the husband had noticed old copies piled in a dumpster behind the paper’s office after it was sold. He and his wife, the publication’s former long-time editor, Sandra Lee Johnston, later returned to rescue them.

“Newspapers cover every single aspect of society,” Duncan says. “It’s like a diary, really. It’s a community diary. It’s the single biggest piece of preservation we can do.”

Even when there’s community buy-in, digitizing newspapers is a lengthy, skill-intensive, and costly process. In last month’s council session in Cornwall, Duncan said that the cost will add up to about 75 cents per page, which will cover making each page optical-character-recognition readable, meaning that a user can search the collection with keywords. 

an old photograph of a baseball team
Don Smith recently tracked down a photo of the 1964 Hodgins Lumber Huskies softball team for a patron. (Facebook.com/Cornwall Community Museum)

Jess Posgate, the project coordinator for OurDigitalWorld, a non-profit dedicated to helping communities create digital collections of local history, says that, with the shuttering of community newspapers, there’s a growing urgency to get digitization projects done. (One such project she collaborated on this year was the digitization of the Daily British Whig, which later became the Kingston Whig-Standard.)

And demand for online resources is up, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be increasing the ranks of at-home family historians and those interested in genealogy, Posgate says. Yet Canada does not have a national strategy for the digitization of its newspapers, she notes, so the responsibility of preservation falls to publications and to community organizations such as libraries: “These [digitization projects] tend to happen as one-off projects, grant-based.”

Yet the value of community papers is enormous, says Don Smith, associate curator of the Cornwall Community Museum, who also sits on the volunteer committee, along with Helen McCutcheon, CEO of the Cornwall Public Library; Hugo Rodrigues, managing editor of the Standard-Freeholder; and Rick Shaver, publisher of the Seaway News

In September, Smith received a backup copy of the Standard-Freeholder’s microfilm archives, as well as more than 300,000 of the paper’s photo negatives. Over the years, Smith has helped residents and researchers alike find information about such topics as local artists, a nearby record-pressing plant, dairy-production history, long-closed local shops, family obituaries — and, recently, the 1964 Hodgins Lumber Huskies softball team.

If an online collection is created, Smith says, his and his volunteers’ time will be better spent. “They won’t have to be looking physically through, page by page; they’ll be able to narrow it down with a Control-F,” he explains, referring to a keyboard shortcut for finding a specific word on a website.

Back in Glengarry County, MacDonald now tracks about 40 daily visitors to his online newspaper collection. 

“We tend to paint a decade or a generation as being this way or that way, simplifying it,” he says. “When you get into the historical record, you quickly discover that there’s a lot of complexity to that period.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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