No paywall, no privatization

Earlier this year, we embarked on a collaborative project with Library and Archives Canada to digitize the largest existing mass of Canadian archival records, enrich it with data that would hopefully encourage all sorts of new exploration and discovery, and provide enduring, free access to the digital images.

While we were putting the finishing touches on the Héritage project announcement, scheduled for mid-June, a series of leaks came out which provoked some highly distorted interpretations of the agreement, causing much outrage and bitterness. In the absence of reliable third-party information, this is probably a good juncture to clarify a few points about Héritage and our role in it:

Who will enjoy online access to this collection?

Anyone, anywhere will be able to use this resource, from the most distinguished scholars to people researching their family history to students working on their very first research assignments. Contrary to persistent reports, there will be no paywall on any of the digital images. As collections are digitized, they will be viewable, for free, on our website—making them much more accessible than before.

What about full text searching?

Very little of the archival text is currently visible to our search tools. This is because archival records present some exceptional technological challenges: Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, a component of digitization which extracts searchable text from the raw images, doesn’t recognize the handwritten or cursive text found in these records. Transcribing the collection to produce this data will take enormous time and resources—arguably, beyond the scope of any single institution to accomplish, which explains this partnership.

We hope to generate the revenues to create this text data from donations, sponsorships, and an optional premium site with enhanced features—this last being at the origin of the “paywall” myth. Individuals will be able to choose whether they want to pay and support the project (again, the digitized images will always be free) but the more revenue we collect, the more data we can create. Until the completion of the project, this searchable, full-text data will be one of the premium services.

Who is funding this project?

Start-up funds were provided by the Canadian Research Knowledge Network (CRKN), an organization of research libraries dedicated to expanding digital resources for academic research. Long-term support from CRKN and the Canadian Association of Research Libraries was instrumental in assembling the secure, reliable digital repository which will serve as the launching pad for this project—attesting to the increasing importance and value of a nationwide alliance of research libraries. In exchange, these institutions will have access to the enhanced features, which means that many Canadians will enjoy these same benefits on behalf of the public and research libraries that partnered with us.

Where will the revenues go? is a membership alliance composed of public libraries and universities (not, as some would have it, a shadowy “high-tech consortium”). As a non-profit organization and registered charity, we invest all revenues, whatever their source, into digital preservation efforts. Needless to say, any revenue we collect from this project will be used to cover the costs of digitization, metadata creation, and future infrastructure to provide and improve access.

Why is this project important?

We believe this to be a pathfinder model for sustainable, self-funded digitization, and a major step forward in efforts to preserve and make accessible Canadian content. This project builds a vast, free digital resource that will help support the widest possible access to Canada's documentary heritage at a time when serious concern has been raised about the lack, and scaling back, of such access. In addition, it allows the lender, Library and Archives Canada, to retain ownership and obtain copies of the digital collection.