Historians, educators, journalists, and members of the public will soon be able to access a major historical source about life on the Saanich Peninsula.
Alyssa Gerwing, assistant director of the Sidney Museum and Archives, said the pending digitization of the Peninsula News Review will help interested parties gain access to unique materials that document the agricultural, cultural, economic, historical, political and social history of the Saanich Peninsula and Gulf Islands.
The existing collection includes increasingly delicate physical copies of the newspaper from its start in 1912 to 2018, as well as archival copies on 35mm microfilm for years of 1912 to 2002. These microfilms — some 46 rolls, each 100 feet long — are for the moment only accessible through a solitary, out-dated microfilm reader, or Gerwing described it, “a giant dinosaur of a machine,” available by appointment only.
In other words, access to this archival resource remains limited, and increasingly threatened by time, as the microfilm reader – as well as the original material – ages and becomes more brittle.
Digitizing the microfilms would not only preserve their archival integrity, but also make them available to the public for free.
The BC History Digitization Program is currently considered a grant application from the Sidney Museum and Archives to digitize the microfilms with an answer expected some time this month, said Gerwing.
The musuem has also sent a roll of microfilm to the Vancouver-based scanning firm that will digitize the microfilms for testing. “We just got results back and it looks like we are going to have some pretty crisp images,” she said.
To underscore the significance of the project, Gerwing said it will go ahead regardless of whether the grant application succeeds.
“Even if we don’t end up getting the grant, we will be going out into the community, and trying to fund this project anyway, just because we think it is so important,” she said. “Everybody I talked to is so excited.”
For now, the museum is seeking sponsors to raise $10,000 for the matching funds required by the granting agency. An unnamed private individual has already donated $1,000 towards the project. Funds would need to be confirmed by April 15 and only collected in May if the grant application is successful.
Gerwing said it will take the hired professional company most of the summer to scan the mircofilms. The company will also perform a process called optical character recognition, the conversion of typed or printed text into machine-coded text that will eventually allow future users to search the scanned collection by key words, with a local tech company creating and linking the necessary database to the museum’s website.
“So what we are trying to do is remove that barrier of having only one microfilm reader and put that information out there, so people can access local history, the history of North Saanich and Sidney, the Saanich Peninsula and the Gulf Islands,” said Gerwing.
“This process will show us where the gaps are, and that way we can go to the museum community, the library community, and see if anyone can back-fill those things,” she added later.
While it is not clear how many communities are digitizing their respective local newspapers, the number is rising.
“It is becoming more and more common and we want to make sure that we are not left behind,” said Gerwing, who has had experience digitizing records, while attending university. While working in Prince George, Gerwing also appreciated the ease of using a search-able database rather than scrolling and spooling miles of microfilm.
“It was really an invaluable tool to have,” she said.
This current digitization project is part of a larger plan to make as much of the newspaper available as possible. If everything goes according to plan, this current and arguably largest step, will be ready for use by early 2021 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Sidney Museum and Archives.
“So it is a really nice way for Black Press, the Peninsula News Review, and the museum to celebrate both histories,” she said.
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