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Student project creates accessible database of Canada's first newspapers

The front page of issue No. 1 of Le Canadien, which was published November 22, 1806 (image via U of T Scarborough Library)

Researchers at the University of Toronto are providing valuable insight into Canadian history by creating an accessible, free database of the nation’s first newspapers.

Led by Sébastien Drouin, an associate professor in the department of language studies at U of T Scarborough, the bilingual project, “Early Modern Canadian Newspapers Online” is a collection of newspapers from the second half of the eighteenth century – from 1752 to 1810 – printed in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Québec and Ontario.

“There are libraries at other universities that have started some digitization of Canadian newspapers, but there are no other projects right now dedicated to early modern Canadian newspapers,” says Drouin, an expert in early modern clandestine literature and early modern journalism.

Sébastien Drouin

“We’re very excited about giving access to documents that are almost impossible to find right now.”

The project is one of five at U of T Scarborough that were recently supported by the Jackman Scholars-in-Residence (SiR) program. Fueled by the Jackman Humanities Institute, the tri-campus initiative offers undergraduate students a platform to conduct research with a professor working in the humanities or social sciences for an intensive four-week period.

It took a multi-disciplinary team of students in early modern and Canadian histories, book history and the computer sciences to drive the project.

U of T Scarborough Library’s Digital Scholarship Unit (DSU), an initiative that helps researchers with digital collections, digital preservation and scholarly communications, was a key partner in helping the SiR team connect with institutions across the country who have access to early modern newspapers – which are often stored on microfilms. 

The library has so far supported the discovery and digitization of 24 newspapers (so far) through partnerships with the Canadian Research Knowledge Network and the University of New Brunswick Libraries. In fact, the U of T Scarborough Library is now the owner of a 19th-century newspaper called Le Canadien.

Five U of T students worked on populating the database with the microfilms to create searchable bio-bibliographical profiles of the newspapers, including its printers, first journalists and the context of publication.

There are 30 copies of various newspapers in the database, the majority being full-runs published in 1752 – the year that the Halifax Gazette, Canada’s first newspaper, was printed in Nova Scotia. Another find was 18th-century subscribers lists to the Québec Gazette.

“Newspapers were less about freedom of expression and more of a colonial enterprise,” Drouin says. ”It slowly evolved into a vehicle for expressing your opinion.”

U of T Scarborough students Sapphire Davis and Tanya Ng Cheong were work-study students with the digital scholarship unit who participated in the SiR program.

Ng Cheong, a third-year English, journalism and creative writing student, prepared materials to be processed for categorization. This included sorting and examining microphotographs for damage and the tedious process of documenting page numbers, dates, titles and locations of publication for each item.

An international student from Mauritius, Ng Cheong says the project was a unique way to learn about Canadian history.

“A really interesting part for me has been learning about Canadian history,” Ng Cheong says. “I’m not learning about it in class. I’m learning from the newspapers people were reading centuries ago in Canada. It tells me so much more than what I could have read on a Wikipedia page, for example.”

For the SiR project, Davis and Ng Cheong took a deeper dive into the contents of the newspapers themselves, which included transcribing the articles, searching for mentions of notable people in history and researching additional context for the database.

Students are also investigating the newspapers’ content through a de-colonizing lens, with the goal of helping academics who are studying Black and Indigenous history more easily access resources.

“We saw ads for slave auctions, notices for search warrants and really paid attention to the language used,” says Davis, a fifth-year French and linguistics student. “I think our first step in the decolonization part of this project is that we can prove what happened in Canadian history and do the work to dismantle that.”

The team will continue to develop the database, with hopes of launching it next year. Meanwhile, the U of T Scarborough Library will work with student staff through its Emerging Professionals program to provide additional opportunities for U of T students to gain experience in software programming and processing work utilized in the SiR project.

Read more about the project at CBC

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