Unburying the dead: Bringing cemetery records to life

Cemeteries Module Think Tank

Cemeteries are being documented across Ontario often in inconsistent styles and platforms which means users can’t find information easily and efficiently. For example, the Chatham-Kent and Oxford County Public Libraries provide limited access to thousands of grave site records created by community members; the Ontario Ancestors also hosts multiple headstone and cemetery recording projects; and OurDigitalWorld has clients entering or migrating cemetery and headstone data into their VITA Toolkit collections. However, the dense data being captured in these and other projects around Canada and the World are disparate, often unstructured, and sometimes only searchable using browser search options.

Thanks to the Government of Canada’s Department of Canadian Heritage First Spark grant, ODW recently co-hosted a one-day heuristic think tank during which, a group of key genealogical, heritage and community members explored the needs and requirements to consider sustainable systems for capturing and sharing cemetery, headstone, and related genealogical resources.

Canadian Headstones site, Ontario Ancestors

The challenge of the day was to:

  • explore existing efforts of Genealogical society members, Public Librarians, community members with gravestone data collections, and software developers
  • identify the challenges, opportunities and requirements to improve recording schema and standards, and
  • consider how to improve public access and discovery of local cemetery and headstone databases.

Using real life cemetery and gravestone records, private and organizational databases, and other international examples, we analysed and discussed best ways forward to capture local cemetery history and content, identify schema and standards that satisfy stakeholders from different disciplines, and what the development implications are for creating solutions.

Cemeteries Index, Richmond Hill Public Library

There was no expectation of arriving at any single solution, rather the group discussion flowed across many subjects, including data input standards (e.g. geolocation/GPS input), multi-lingual requirements, OCR options (i.e. text recognition from headstone photographs), hierarchical and lateral record linking, crowdsourcing options, increasing search and discovery options, and the challenges of preserving and storing the vast quantity of information generated by these projects.

The conversation helped us recognize a few common themes: that user expectations are for in-and-out access, requiring straightforward search and discovery tools and access to actual data like headstone photos, rather than finding aids; that there are opportunities for encouraging or implementing Linked Open Data mechanisms within systems to help with inter-connectivity and aggregation; and, that most existing systems are databases and websites, not archives, so there is an opportunity for wider discussion about preserving the information at a national level.

Thanks to co-hosts Megan Cowan & Andrea Johnson, Chatham Kent Public Library and Jess Posgate, OurDigitalWorld, and our participants: Steve Fulton & Joe Wilson, Ontario Ancestors; Ryan van Leeuwen, Oxford County Library; Jane MacNamara, cemetery and headstone transcriber; and Walter Lewis, OurDigitalWorld.

We welcome your thoughts, please contact ODW for more information.

CALL FOR EXPRESSIONS OF INTEREST: National Heritage Digitization Strategy (NHDS) Advisory Committee

The National Heritage Digitization Strategy (NHDS) invites expressions of interest from the GLAM (gallery,  library, archive, and museum) community to join the NHDS Advisory Committee. The NHDS Advisory  Committee is an unincorporated body whose members are aligned in engaging the Canadian library,  archive, and museum community and Canadian creators in sharing expertise, to facilitate the digitization,  preservation, and discovery of Canadian heritage. The NHDS Advisory Committee is accountable to the  broader GLAM community which it endeavours to represent. The Chair of the Advisory Committee reports  on its activities to the NHDS Executive Committee. 

Membership in the NHDS Advisory Committee is limited to Canadian public or not-for-profit GLAM (gallery, library, archives, and museum) organizations, committed to, and with a demonstrated investment in the digitization of, preservation of, and access to Canadian heritage. 

For more information on the NHDS Advisory Committee, please consult the Terms of Reference and the  NHDS website. 

NHDS Advisory Committee members may also be called to serve on Working Groups or Task Groups with  an additional time commitment. 

To submit an expression of interest, please complete the Expression of Interest form on the NHDS website and submit to Georgia Ashworth (gashworth@crkn.ca) by February 23, 2021.

Walter Lewis, Marine Historian & VITA Toolkit developer

In a recent Facebook post, Walter Lewis, the primary developer at OurDigitalWorld, talked about his recent home digitization activities. A maritime historian, Walter dedicates a substantial amount of time to writing and publishing articles and books on Great Lakes ships and shipping history, digitizing and making marine history available to everyone on his VITA Digital Toolkit site Maritime History of the Great Lakes.

Walter’s expertise also reflects the principles and best practices of the ODW all-in-one digitization process, including using best copies to obtain higher Optical Character Recognition (OCR) results to enhance the user experience, and to optimize public access and discovery. In his post, Walter says, “I had the opportunity this week to ‘finish’ (to the extent that any of these projects are really finished) putting online just over 20,000 pages of the Marine Review from between December 1891 and January 1908. Up to the end of 1899, these were in bound volumes which had had the covers and some of the advertising pages trimmed off…. From 1900 to 1908, I worked from individual issues, most of which were complete with their covers, but never a complete set of issues for the years. For 1900-1902, these are supplemented by the digitized microfilm issues that were already in place… Searching is dramatically better because the OCR was significantly improved, especially of the editorial columns. Further good news is that reproduction of the images is far better (remembering the process of reproduction in those years and the effects of time on paper), with three or four levels of zoom. … I would be delighted to fill in the gaps from originals in other collections, which is why these projects are never *really* done.”

Walter Lewis’ home scanning set up

Walter’s historical research and the resulting digital collection provides well over a hundred thousand rare and wide ranging resources to the marine history community. The Maritime History of the Great Lakes site also acts as a prototype and testing ground for his development work on the VITA Toolkit. Having a public, ever developing collection is the ultimate test for the features and functionality we then share with our VITA clients. As Walter likes to say: “We eat our own dog food.” The resulting collection is a showcase not only for the VITA Toolkit but a testament to Walter’s commitment to making primary materials available online and to the never ending pursuit of a better quality, more comprehensive, and accessible historical record.

Almost immediately following the Facebook post, a fellow historian responded to Walter’s request and offered up a set of bound volumes of the Marine Review to help fill the gaps in the online collection. “OK, so I’m not finished,” quipped Walter.

Daily British Whig 1902-1926 now online

OurDigitalWorld is excited to announce that the Daily British Whig from 1902-1926 is online. The Frontenac Heritage Foundation undertook the project to digitize this significant set of community news, covering the first of the World Wars, and make the papers available as part of the larger Kingston newspaper collection hosted by the Kingston Frontenac Public Library.

With the addition of these almost 90,000 pages, the online Kingston newspaper collection has doubled and now ranges more than 100 years, from 1810-1926. The Digital Kingston VITA Toolkit site at http://vitacollections.ca/digital-kingston/search allows users to search by keyword and facet results to sort or narrow them by date, publication, and more.

Daily British Whig October 9, 1909

OurDigitalWorld worked with Library and Archives Canada via the Canadian Research Knowledge Network to access and digitize the microfilm copies, and with University of Windsor to achieve high quality positional OCR processing. The newspapers are uploaded into the VITA Digital Toolkit for search and display with full text search and hit highlighted results. Frontenac Heritage Foundation member John Grenville used the new primary materials to research a local architect Ernest Beckwith, designer of the Orpheum Theatre in Kingston, and returned very specific results.

ODW, Kingston Frontenac Public Library and the Frontenac Heritage Foundation encourage genealogists, students, and other researchers’ use and exploration of this important set of newspapers. To read the full press release and for contact information regarding the project, click here.

Featured Image courtesy of Maritime History of the Great Lakes Digital collection

Documentary Heritage Communities Program call for proposals now open

DHCP Banner
Funding Your Project Ideas:
The Documentary Heritage Communities Program

The call for project proposals for 2021-2022 grants is open until January 12, 2021.

The Documentary Heritage Communities Program from Library and Archives Canada distributes $1.5 million to cultural heritage organizations across Canada to preserve, document, and increase access to our cultural and community heritage.

Eligible organizations include Libraries, Historical Societies, Genealogical Societies and Organizations, Archives, Indigenous organizations/government institutions, Professional Library and Archives Associations, and other Organizations with an archival component.

Explore the website and program guidelines here.

OurDigitalWorld has worked with many organizations on their DHCP proposals and to provide solutions for projects of all sizes, including:

We can help with multimedia or newspaper collections, index card digitization, multilingual materials and displays, and more.

Email us about your project ideas or get a free estimate to include with your proposal.

“Can I Use This?”: Implementing Rights Statements in Online Cultural Heritage Collections

Hello! This is Adam Ianson. I’m a recent graduate of the University of Toronto’s iSchool and practicum student with OurDigitalWorld during which I was involved in providing recommendations for the implementation of standardized Rights Statements as part of VITA Digital Toolkit for their partner GLAM organizations’ collections.

Rights Statements are similar to Creative Commons licenses with one important difference. They are similar in that their purpose is to communicate clearly to users what they are permitted to do with the images, articles, and other digital content they find online. They are also both international standards that support the aims of the free-culture movement by enhancing the discoverability of public domain and free-license content online and by facilitating the reuse of those materials to generate new creative works.

The important difference to note is that Creative Commons licenses are legally binding and can only be applied to content by the rightsholder (or rightsholders) of that content. Rights Statements are often better suited to the needs of cultural heritage repositories such as ODW’s partners, which in most cases do not hold the rights to the content they make available online. 

Currently, ODW partners are prompted to select one of five rights statuses to display with each item they make available on their VITA collection: public domain, copyrighted, licensed, contractual, or unknown. Each status has a corresponding statement that appears as the public description. These statements are at least consistent, but when it comes to answering the question “can I use this item?” they can only inform the user that either there are ‘no restrictions on use’ or that the user must ‘ask for permission’ with little nuance in between. Also, users are not able to search for items in the collection according to their copyright status. Rights Statements offer improvements in both of these areas.

West Branch Bridge, Moira River, Tweed, Ontario. http://images.ourontario.ca/tweed/103610/data

To implement Rights Statements in VITA requires bridging the current copyright statement options to their more expressive equivalent (or equivalents) in the Rights Statements system. To better understand this task I found guidance in the British Columbia Electronic Library Network’s Arca and Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ), two Canadian cultural heritage repositories that have implemented Rights Statements in their collections. I also consulted a draft of the research paper produced by the National Heritage Digitization Strategy (NHDS) on the use of Rights Statements in the Canadian context. 

Based on my research, I determined that two of the twelve Rights Statements have low utility for ODW’s purposes. First, the In Copyright – EU Orphan Work statement, because it references legislation that applies exclusively to member states of the European Union. The other, No Copyright – Other Legal Restrictions statement, has limitations as well. This is used to restrict free use of the item because it has designated cultural expression protections; as well, applying the statement is inconclusive without further links to legal restrictions as supplied by the steward organization. Instead, the recommendation is to employ a more granular, descriptive standard that is sensitive to the community-specific protocols surrounding the access and use of these items, such as the Traditional Knowledge (TK) Labels system developed by Local Contexts, or the proposed Open Licensing Scheme for Traditional Knowledge jointly developed by Carleton University and the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic.

Furthermore, I learned that the current suite of Rights Statements may not be specific enough to the Canadian legal context. For example, works published by the Government of Canada or any of the provincial offices of the Queen’s Printer are protected by Crown copyright. The use restrictions on these works are comparable to, but by no means fully encapsulated by, the existing In Copyright – Non-commercial Use Permitted statement. Therefore, it may be desirable to create a “tailor-made” In Copyright – Crown Work Rights Statement for use in the Canadian GLAM context. Or it may make sense to instead advocate, alongside the Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA) and Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL), to retroactively assign a Creative Commons CC-BY license to publicly available Canadian government publications.

In the course of my practicum I’ve certainly come to recognize the sheer number of decisions that need to be made in the process of implementing Rights Statements in online cultural heritage collections. I also appreciate the importance of consulting extensively with partner organizations, users, and the GLAM community at large before rolling out changes to a collection numbering in the millions of items!

Interested in hearing more? I’ll be presenting next week at the the Creative Commons Summiton Tuesday, October 20, 2020.

ODW Wikipedia Project Page

Thanks to practicum student Jamie Morin, we have a GLAM/ODW Wiki project page underway. The WikiProject will act as ODW’s central location on Wikipedia and was developed to build ODW’s authority as an author in the Wikisphere and provide an infrastructure to launch more projects and expand existing sections as needed.

For the launch, we have included one project: Ontario Community Newspapers. This project links in all articles about newspaper publications already created and published on Wikipedia by ODW staff and volunteers. The project invites volunteers to:

  • check and improve citations on already existing articles
  • connect orphan articles to related Wikipedia articles
  • edit existing Wikipedia articles
  • upload new Wikipedia articles

We invite our VITA partners and the wider community to participate in growing this project and building a strong web of information around Ontario Community Newspapers with links back to online digital newspaper collections.

Visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:GLAM/OurDigitalWorld

Macrophotography from Microfilm

Since 2017, ODW has been exploring low-cost options for digitizing newspapers from microfilm. Inspired by DIY and makerspace memes popular in the library community,

ODW has worked on a prototype that can be assembled from readily-available components with a view towards providing a low-cost alternative for microfilm scanning. The approach centers around macrophotography, a technique that employs a special lens to zoom in at a level that allows intricate details of an object to be captured. Macrophotography has typically been used for capturing details of subjects in nature, like insects and flower petals, but it has broad application for anything at a reduced scale, including tiny photographs of newspaper pages.

At the 2018 OLA SuperConference, ODW Board Member and University of Windsor librarian, Art Rhyno, presented an overview of the first version of the prototype in a session entitled DIY Digitization of Community Newspapers. Part of the presentation included a video of the prototype (see below).

It is admittedly difficult to discern the components of the prototype in the video, but it illustrates 3 of the 4 building blocks to microfilm scanning listed in the 2018 presentation:

  1. Dealing with torque
  2. Configuring a stable camera arrangement
  3. Supplying appropriate lighting
  4. Finding flexible options for merging

Torque is a “twisting force to cause rotation”, and is needed to rotate microfilm reels in order for a camera to take pictures at different parts of the reel. Microfilm is surprisingly challenging for motors, and requires a fairly high level of torque to stand up to rotating reels for hours at a time. The best results were achieved with a rotisserie motor rated for 50 lbs, and one surprise with this setup was discovering that very few models of this type of motor had consistent turning directions, i.e., most randomly spin clockwise or counter-clockwise but not necessarily the same way twice.

The camera arrangement can be achieved with a tripod and possibly some creativity if the positioning of the camera over the light source is awkward (as you might guess from the video). A light table or a LED work light with a sheet of white plexiglass can provide the light source for illuminating the film. The results can be seen below, using an advertisement from the Nov. 20, 1874 edition of the Amherstburg Echo, there is no doubt that using a camera with a macro lens can be an effective strategy for capturing the level of detail necessary for microfilm.

Figure 1.

An original microfilm scan [Figure 1] from a decade ago. The film’s imperfections and the challenges of the illustration itself combine to make a problematic image.

Figure 2.

A recent scan [Figure 2] from a commercial provider. This scan has been post-processed to increase the contrast between the ink and the background page. This is certainly an improvement over the first image but is still difficult to read.

Figure 3.

The same page [Figure 3] with macrophotography. The image is much truer to its original form, though still challenging (for example, the lines in italic).

The original prototype used a standard DSLR Camera but the moving mirror in a DSLR eventually became problematic for microfilm since so many pictures were required to capture an entire reel and the parts would soon wear out. A mirrorless camera turned out to be a better option. Without moving parts, a mirrorless camera can take many more photos, an important consideration when a single reel can represent more than 1000 pages. The other key piece of camera equipment is a macro lens. Some microfilm may not require the level of magnification that a macro lens provides, but newspaper pages, in particular, need much stronger zoom support than a standard lens typically provides.

ODW, in partnership with the University of Windsor, has now scanned hundreds of newspaper reels. At the time of this writing, newspaper reels continue to be scanned, as can be seen below:

Note that this arrangement has two scanners controlled by one workstation. From the beginning, Ubuntu has been the backbone of the system controlling the scanning, relying on the remarkable ecosystem that linux has fostered. Many pages can be split into two or more images, depending on the way the page was photographed for the microfilm, and there has been no shortage of high quality image merging software to “stitch” the pages back together.

There have been some hard lessons to be learned along the way, however. Unlike the majority of computer equipment, camera equipment tends to fluctuate more wildly in pricing. The mirrorless camera purchased last year for $600 CAD, is now nearly 3 times that cost! At the same time, there is a newer mirrorless model that is about $400 CAD. It can be good to have a conversation with someone versed in camera equipment before assembling a scanning station.

The majority of historical newspapers will benefit from macrophotography, but some microfilm, particularly vesicular microfilm, will not benefit from the lighting system and may appear “washed out.” Badly scratched and/or dirty microfilm may, in turn, produce high resolution images of flaws in the film in addition to the pages themselves.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge of all is to try out alternative approaches. It is not easy to walk into a camera store with microfilm and a light source in order to sample different cameras and lenses. Phone cameras, which are improving at an incredibly rapid pace, are even more problematic for testing, since they tend to be tied to phone plans and reseller arrangements. In all these cases, there is usually a need to purchase equipment up front, and hope that it provides the desired results upon deployment.

ODW is currently investigating options for microfiche scanning. Most newspaper projects avoid microfiche formats but sometimes there is no other alternative, particularly with small community newspapers in Ontario. We welcome partners in exploring scanning options for these formats and would like to achieve a blueprint that would put low-cost scanners into the reach of almost any organization seeking to convert film formats to digital form.

Women’s Institutes Completes Its Digitization Project

OurDigitalWorld is very pleased to have been involved in this project, working with the Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario for more the past 4 years, processing the materials for full text search and hosting the materials for search and discovery via the VITA Digital Toolkit.

From a Press release from Irene Robillard, Federation of Women’s Institutes of Ontario:

The Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario completed its three-year project through the Documentary Heritage Communities Program of Library and Archives Canada on March 31st, 2020. During this time 225,000 pages have been digitized and added to our Virtual Archives, most being our Tweedsmuir Community History Collections.  These collections, with many starting in 1947, contain the history of a local community and can include farm and family histories, biographies, and photos.  

Books from as far north as Cochrane in the northeast and Kenora in the northwest, down to beyond London in southwestern Ontario, the Ottawa Valley in the east, and many books in between were brought to a central digitizing site and then returned.  Some books were found that we were not aware of, and one book was saved from destruction.

We have fostered positive relationships with archives, museums, libraries, and historical societies throughout Ontario, with a few using our Virtual Archives to put their previously-digitized Women’s Institutes (WI) documents online. As well, some WI branches and districts have self-funded digitizing.

About half of the documents have not yet been opened to the public, as they need to be reviewed for privacy concerns. This will happen over the next year or two. As well, there are many more books to be digitized [with] a waiting list for digitizing from branches, districts, and holding organizations.

The public can freely access the Virtual Archives at http://collections.fwio.on.ca/search. As well, the FWIO records as well as Women’s Institutes records from other organizations can be found through the WI portal: http://portal.fwio.on.ca.

If you have a suggestion of other resources to be added to the collection, please contact the FWIO or OurDigitalWorld at info@ourdigitalworld.org.

OurDigitalWorld Joins CRKN as Associate Member

CRKN logo

OurDigitalWorld is pleased to announce that we are joining with the Canadian Research Knowledge Network as an Associate Member in 2020. OurDigitalWorld joins CRKN as its 81st member. As a member, OurDigitalWorld will benefit from closer participation in CRKN’s heritage and digitization initiatives and the opportunity to connect with members across Canada on national strategies and approaches.

“Associate membership with CRKN will allow us to expand our network to better serve communities throughout Canada,” said Loren Fantin, Executive Director of OurDigitalWorld. “Joining CRKN also consolidates the successful working relationship our organizations have had, and I look forward to continuing our productive relationship as an Associate member.”

Loren Fantin is a member of CRKN’s Heritage Content and Priorities Task Group (HCPTG) and presented on OurDigitalWorld’s digitization strategy at the 2019 CRKN Conference. OurDigitalWorld has also been a strategic partner and collaborator with CRKN through Canadiana on digitization projects for the past decade.

“OurDigitalWorld has been an active member of our stakeholder community, and I am very pleased to welcome them to CRKN as an Associate Member,” said Clare Appavoo, Executive Director of CRKN. “Their perspective will be valuable within our membership as we collaborate on shared goals within the digital heritage field.”

See the full press release at: https://www.crkn-rcdr.ca/en/ourdigitalworld-joins-crkn-associate-member 

For more information about the CRKN Members go to: https://www.crkn-rcdr.ca/en/members