Vancouver Island University is working to digitize old microfilm of newspapers. (Vancouver Island University photo)

Vancouver Island University is working to digitize old microfilm of newspapers. (Vancouver Island University photo)

T.W. Paterson column: We must cherish our libraries, museums and archives

History only "works" when it's recorded for posterity, a task made easier these days by technology.

History only “works” when it’s recorded for posterity, a task made easier these days by technology.

The catastrophic fire that destroyed Brazil’s National Museum last month is a scary reminder of how valuable — and how vulnerable — our own repositories of history really are.

Other than the fire in the Ottawa Parliament Buildings in 1918 that consumed part or all of (I’m going on memory here) the national library, Canada hadn’t, to my knowledge, ever suffered a loss such as that just experienced in Rio de Janiero. In sad fact it has, but I’ll get to that…

But it could happen and it’s all the more reason for us to nurture and to treasure our libraries, museums and archives, from the local to national levels. We in the Cowichan Valley are blessed with dedicated historical societies that, almost daily, identify, classify and save our history for posterity.

All of these societies are run by mostly volunteer members and we’d soon be lost without them. History only “works” when it’s recorded for posterity, a task made easier these days by technology.

Which brings me to the subject of old newspapers. Originally, they were kept in bound volumes, both by the publishing newspapers, and in the Provincial Archives, Victoria. Then, in the 1960s or so, along came a revolutionary way of recording them in condensed form: on microfilm.

Quite simply, each and every page of each and every newspaper was photographed and placed (in sequence, of course) on rolls of 35mm film which could be magnified and viewed on a microfilm reader.

How many thousands of hours I’ve sat, hunched before a microfilm machine, in libraries and archives, trying to read purple print on a dark green screen! Even when I was younger, and my eyes up to the task, it was tiring and wearing.

Worse, if the micofilm machine lacked a built-in printer (and only the libraries with larger budgets had these), you had to write out, by long or short hand, or with a typewriter when facilities permitted, what you were reading.

Or you could dictate the content into a tape recorder and be faced with the tedious and tiring job of transcribing the tape when you got back to your office. A job I always hated and hence I usually preferred to take notes. (My hurried writing then posed a different challenge when read days later: legibility. But it still beat listening to a snatch of tape, stop, type, tape, stop, type, tape, ad nauseum!

An advantage of a tape recorder, of course, was that it captured the subject’s voice, speaking style, mannerisms, all of which added greatly to its historical value. But what a drag…

Another downside of old newspapers was their tendency to brown and to become brittle because of the high acid content in newsprint. Mostly, from the viewpoint of these various institutions, their failing was that they were bulky, the size of single flat newspaper page, bound in various thicknesses, and heavy and awkward to deal with let alone having to store them by the hundreds or even thousands.

With the advent of microfilm, universities, libraries — even public archives — couldn’t dump their warehouses of bound volumes of newspapers fast enough. I saw them at flea markets and garage sales; how many went to landfills (this was pre-recycling), who knows?

But that wasn’t the real issue. The real problem was the quality of some of those microfilmed newspapers. To this day, I’ve not been able to decipher some vital (to me) issues of the Nanaimo Daily Free Pess because I just couldn’t read them. This happened, on a hit and miss basis (depending upon the photographer’s work ethic or, perhaps, the night before), I’m assuming, throughout the province.

So when the original newspapers were literally dumped, there was no way of going back to the original story to decipher or to re-save it.

Now, the digital age has brought more wondrous change and improvement (and dangers) to the keeping of history as published in newspapers. Locally and regionally, Vancouver Island University has embarked upon a program of converting all those thousands and thousands of miles of microfilmed newspapers onto computer disks.

Only problem, of course, is they’re working with sometimes flawed originals as outlined above. But, still, what a difference this will make. Ultimately, the newspapers of old will be made available online as has been the case, for example, of much of The British Colonist for some years now.

If only this had been possible years ago!

Getting back to the issue of preventing a disaster such as that which occurred in Brazil, a subsequent Canadian Press report assured us that Canadian institutions have already prepared for such dangers as earthquakes, fires and flooding.

But, according to Cara Krmpotich, director of the University of Toronto’s museum studies program, funding for infrastructure can be hard to come by. In Canada, yet. It’s generally accepted that the lack of funding contributed greatly to Brazil’s tragedy because its national museum, which housed much of Latin America’s largest collection of historic and scientific artifacts, lacked even a sprinkler system.

To give just a few examples of the priceless and irreplaceable treasures held by Canadian museums, the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library holds the oldest printed book in Canada (ca 1481), the letters of General James Wolfe (who captured Quebec for the British and set the course of Canadian history), and modern archival records of Leonard Cohen and Margaret Atwood.

Much of the library’s operating revenue comes from donors, by the way.

The university has a 48-page disaster preparedness plan in place that deals with not just preventing disaster but with how to deal with the immediate aftermath if there’s anything to salvage.

Perhaps the university’s pro-action plan is motivated by the fact that it experienced a disastrous fire in 1890 when 33,000 books — including a rare copy of Audobon’s Birds of America — were lost.

As recently as this summer, a computer crash wiped out the digital archive at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and another fire in Quebec City in 2014 threatened a priceless collection at the Musee de la civilization. And we almost lost Cormorant Island’s totem pole treasures to fire, too.

In short it can, it has happened in Canada and we can’t be too vigilant. Nor can we be too cheap! Either we’re protecting our heritage or we’re not; it hardly makes sense to go to the effort and expense of recording, collecting and housing history if we’re not going to take all the necessary steps to save it from destruction, does it?

Fires, quakes and floods aren’t the only threats, there’s the more subtle and longterm destruction of age, mould and rotting of perishable organic artifacts of wood and paper.

But I could go on. Suffice to say, we don’t want a “Brazil” in Canada. Here’s hoping that all levels of government recognize and support their local institutions in the never-ending task of saving history for the future.

Cowichan Valley Citizen