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Canada in the Making: A Project to Digitise Early Official Publications
Beth Stover

By spring 2006, will be nearing completion of its rather ambitious project to digitise Canada's major official publications from the 18th and 19th centuries. Upon completion of the project, over 1.5 million pages of some of this country's most important documentary heritage, such as its acts, debates, legislative journals and sessional papers, will be available, with full text searching, on the Early Canadiana Online (ECO) site Just what is and how did this small, non-profit organization come to build the most comprehensive on-line collection of early Canadian legislative materials in just six short years? (formerly known as the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions (CIHM)), was launched in 1978 by the Canada Council. In 1969, the academic community protested when the Council terminated a program of assistance to university libraries. In response, the Council convened a group of librarians and scholars, known as the Consultative Group on University Research Libraries, to report on the problems facing university libraries, and to advise on solutions. 

The Consultative Group's Report, published in 1978, noted two key problems: a lack of access to Canada's published heritage, and secondly, a need for this heritage collection to be preserved for future generations. Regarding the former concern, researchers were having difficulty accessing older collections because they were so unevenly distributed across Canada. Much money and time was being spent traveling to libraries that were (understandably) unwilling to loan out their rarest materials. In regards to the latter concern – preservation – many of the publications from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries were deteriorating due to heavy use. The Report noted: “We are faced with the alarming prospect that students in future generations will have very little early Canadian material to study, unless some large and constructive measures are taken immediately.”1 

The Report recommended that “the Canada Council endow an appropriate organization with the sum of  $2 million … to be used exclusively for the creation of a microform Canadiana collection ...”.2 This national organization, by reproducing older books onto preservation quality microfiche and then distributing the microfiche to subscribing libraries, could address the dual concerns of access and preservation. Canada Council acted on the recommendation and (or CIHM as it was originally known) came into existence. In its 28 years of operation, has created several products and in the process has built the largest single collection of early published Canadiana in the world. 

For the first twenty-two years of its existence,'s collections were distributed in microfiche format. Its microfiche collection of early Canadian books, annuals, and periodicals, comprises over 90,000 titles on 270,000 microfiche. In 1996, while still involved in microfilming, began also to move into the digital realm. As a pilot project,, along with fellow project partners – Library and Archives Canada (LAC), the University of Toronto and Laval University Library – and with substantial support from the Mellon Foundation, undertook one of the first large-scale digital projects in Canada. A selection of approximately 3000 microfiche titles were digitised (outsourced to OCLC Preservation Service Centers) and published on's new website Early Canadiana Online (ECO) at These digitised titles were grouped into six thematic collections: English Canadian Literature, Native Studies, Canadian Women's History, History of French Canada, Hudson's Bay and Jesuit Relations. 

ECO was an instant success, with over eight million hits received in its first year! Researchers were enthused with the digital version of books, for it now meant that early Canadiana could be accessed from the comfort of their homes or offices, resulting in a reduction in the amount of time and money spent on the traveling formerly needed to access these materials. Encouraged by this success, decided that its next project, Canada in the Making (CITM) – the reproduction of early Canadian official publications – would be distributed solely in a digital format. 

Why Official Publications?'s mandate to digitise early government publications was given in a survey conducted on its behalf in 1997. The survey was aimed primarily at the two groups which collaborate most closely with the organization – librarians and scholars. When asked what's next project should be, older official publications were given top priority.3 

Indeed, it is not too difficult to understand why such high importance was given to these types of publications. Government documents were one of the first items to roll off the printing presses when the publishing industry was first introduced in mid-eighteenth century Canada. From that time onwards, governments have taken on many important roles in print culture – author, publisher, printer, shipper or distributor, bookseller, etc.4 Government documents have played a key role in chronicling Canadian policy, thought and culture. As they do today, the early official publications covered a broad range of topics. They are essential for the study of Canada's development and governance, and are of immense value to researchers in all fields. 

Each generation likes to think itself more enlightened than the ones that came before. However, a quick glance at many of these publications reveals that 200 years ago, the “movers and shakers” of Canadian society were grappling (and at times in an innovative fashion) with many of the same issues being discussed in the legislature today – environmental concerns, ensuring adequate health care, cultural pluralism, poverty and homelessness, Canada-USA relations, treatment of aboriginals, etc. 

Yet, no single library has a complete collection of even the major government publications such as the acts, parliamentary journals, debates and sessional papers. Hence, anyone wishing to access this dispersed material must be prepared to make extensive use of interlibrary loans and in many cases travel considerable distances to consult rare and fragile books that seldom leave their library home. By digitising these scattered collections, is able to bring them together in a single accessible collection, thereby providing a valuable resource for the study of Canada in all disciplines.  

As one of the first steps in getting the new project underway, established an Advisory Committee and a Focus Group, made up of scholars and librarians with interest in the field. The collection parameters of the project were set after extensive consultation with these two groups, as well as telephone discussions with government document librarians across the country. Initially it was hoped that all pre-1921 official publications would be scanned. However, as it became clear that the number of pre-1921 official publications was much larger (over ten million pages and counting) than originally anticipated, it was realized that this was not possible. Digitising at the proposed rate of 250,000 pages/year, it would take forty years to digitise ten million pages. Such a massive project was beyond's abilities, both in terms of time and money. 

Consequently, the Advisory Committee and the Focus Group were asked to prioritize the types of publications to be digitised. It was decided that the project would focus on materials published in 1900 and earlier and that the main legislative materials (i.e. bills, statutes, sessional papers, debates, journals, etc.) would take first priority. would digitise colonial materials published before Confederation. However, for the time period 1867-1900, only federal materials would be included. (To add provincial and territorial materials for this period would have expanded the life of the project by at least two or three more years.) Municipal government publications and archival materials would not be included in the project. 

The main categories of materials scanned are: 

  • Acts (or statutes): Close to 150 years of acts, from Nova Scotia's acts beginning in 1758, up to the Federal acts passed in 1900, are being digitised. 
  • Debates: For many of the jurisdictions, debates were not published in the earlier years. For example, in pre-1867 Canada, only the Maritime Provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island published official debates, albeit in a rather sporadic fashion. 
  • Sessional Papers: Both quantitatively and qualitatively speaking, the Sessional Papers are a significant part of the Official Publications database. ECO is digitising the over 800 volumes (over 600,000 pages) of Sessional Papers (in English and French) for the years 1860 to 1900. These papers are prized by researchers because they cover an incredibly diverse range of subjects such as international affairs, education, immigration and colonization, commerce, banking and trade, transportation (railway, roads and canals), natural resources (minerals, fishery and lumber), the legal system, military affairs, technology, science and health care. 
  • Journals (and their appendices): These are the official records of the decisions and transactions of the legislatures. They are basically minutes, detailing when various government committees were formed and when bills, returns, committee and departmental reports were introduced. The Journal appendices contain reports on a wide variety of topics. (Thanks to funding from Canadian Heritage's Canadian Culture Online program, all pre-Confederation journals and appendices, as well as the Journals of the House of Commons for the years 1867-1900, are made available in the open access part of ECO.). 
  • Royal Commission reports: These commissions have traditionally been established to investigate extraordinary problems or solicit informed opinions on controversial matters and to set government policy. 
  • Bills: For bills introduced prior to 1860, 1st readings, and for those bills for which 1st readings are not available, the 2nd reading, will be digitised. (This decision was made due to the fact that relatively few of the older 1st reading bills are still in existence). For the period from 1860 to 1900, because of the immense numbers available, only 1st readings will be digitised. 
  • Committee reports: The published reports of both standing and special committees are being digitised. Committee reports were often also published in the Journals or their Appendices, or the Sessional Papers. In such cases, in order to avoid duplication, only the report as published in the Journals, Appendices or Sessional Papers, will be digitised. 
  • Departmental commission reports: These are commissions established by the minister of a department to investigate matters of public concern. These commissions often rank in importance to a Royal Commission. Only a handful of these commission reports will be digitised, since, prior to 1900, very few were published. 
  • Official publications from France and Great Britain that relate to the governance of Canada: This collection consists of over 1000 documents such as acts, bills, correspondence and reports. These records are significant, since much of Canada's early history was largely determined by decisions made in the British and French Parliaments. The collection includes over 600 19th Century British Parliamentary papers that directly relate to Canada. Also included are more than 100 Arrests of France's Conseil d'État regulating life in 17th and 18th century Canada. 
  • Ordinances: These are legislative enactments produced by a governor, acting unilaterally or with the advice of a council, in the absence of an elected legislative body. A number of these are being digitised, most notably those from Quebec during the period 1764-1791 and Lower Canada, 1838-1841. 
  • Regulations: They are a form of delegated legislation. That is, Parliament, by statute, confers upon an outside authority the right to make rules, regulations, etc., which have the force of law. Over 150 regulations, beginning in the late 1700s up to 1900, have been digitised. 
  • Treaties and conventions: There are various types of treaties – regulating trade, establishing territorial boundaries, forming alliances or making peace. Dozens of these treaties that directly or indirectly affect Canada have been digitised, from the peace treaty between France and Native Canadians in 1666, to the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, to agreements relating to the Alaska boundary dispute in the 1890s. 

All of the categories listed above except Journals and Federal Debates, are available by subscription only. 

The above items make up the main part of the Early Official Publications collection. However, there are many other interesting “odds and ends” that do not fit into these categories. Items such as Civil Service lists (detailing the thousands of Canadians employed by the government from 1885 to 1900); guides for prospective immigrants to Canada; select speeches (of John A. MacDonald, Joseph Howe, Sir Charles Tupper, Henri Bourassa and others) and rules for parliamentary procedure and rules for courts.5 

The ECO website also includes an educational resources section, which builds upon ECO's digital collections of books. This section has three main parts:  lesson plans; the Exploration, the Fur Trade and Hudson's Bay Company section, and the Canada in the Making section. The latter section is designed to complement's database of official publications, and integrates narrative text with links to these official publications. There are three main themes: Constitutional history; Aboriginals: treaties & relations, and Pioneers and immigrants. 

A Special Project with the Library of Parliament 

The federal Reconstituted Debates – edited, published and digitised under the auspices of the Library of Parliament is hosted by on the open access section of ECO.6 

Throughout this project, has worked closely with the Library of Parliament. Many books have been borrowed from their historical collections, and staff from the Library have generously offered their expert advice on many occasions. In 2005, this cooperation with the library extended into new areas, as became the fortunate recipient of the digital images of the Reconstituted Debates

As has been well detailed in an article on the Reconstituted Debates 7 there were no official debates published for the early years of Canada's Parliament. Official reporting of the debates was undertaken by the Senate only in 1871 and by the House of Commons in 1875. Prior to those dates, the only record left to Canadians is that from the newspapers of the day where the debates were recorded unofficially, and in abbreviated, colourful (and sometimes biased) form. For the past forty years, the Library has been painstakingly piecing these debates back together, by merging the reports from various newspapers. Begun as a Centennial project (1967), with the editorial assistance of various distinguished Canadians (such as historians Peter B. Waite and David Farr, former Assistant Parliamentary Librarian A. Pamela Hardisty, and political scientist Norman Ward), nine of the missing debates have been edited, translated and published by the Library. is pleased to be including the digital editions of these debates (generously provided by the Library of Parliament) on the open access section of ECO. Currently, this collection consists of the House of Commons Debates (for the years 1867/68, 1869 and 1870) and the Senate Debates (for the years 1867/68, 1869, 1870 and 1871). The Reconstituted Debates for additional years will be added to ECO as they are made available to  

The Production Process 

One of the first steps of any project, is the creation of an in-house database of all possible titles that may be considered for scanning in any given project. This usually ends up being a huge bibliography of titles. Gathering descriptive information about books is a very time-consuming process. For example, two university students spent one entire summer examining the retrospective official publications collection at LAC, going through the massive collection, shelf by shelf, book by book. (, having limited staff and resources, is grateful for the Summer Career Placements and the Young Canada Works in Heritage Organizations programs for their substantial support in the hiring of students over many summers.) 

Selection of material for digitisation is also a slow process. The official publications in-house database contains close to 40,000 titles. However, only a small portion of these titles (perhaps 20%) will actually be chosen for inclusion in the online collection.  As mentioned, titles are chosen using the guidelines established by the Advisory Committee and Focus Group. Once selected to be part of the online collection, the next step in production is to track down a copy of the book suitable for scanning. is not a library. It does not have any original copies of books, and hence relies on the goodwill and cooperation of Canadian libraries to lend to it the books that it scans from. 

Over the years, has borrowed books from over 200 libraries and other cultural organizations across Canada, as well as a handful of libraries in the United States. This cooperation is vital to and the organization is especially indebted to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) who, from the beginning, have generously allowed access to their collections. Indeed more than 50% of the titles that have been scanned for the CITM project, have been from LAC collections. is grateful to be housed at in the LAC building at 395 Wellington St., Ottawa. It makes for a more efficient operation that the organization can be close to the materials that are being scanned. 

As well, books have also been borrowed extensively from the Library of Parliament, with over 2000 titles having been scanned from their collections. However, not all books can be borrowed from local libraries – many titles are only available in libraries outside the Ottawa region. Materials have been generously loaned from legislative, academic and public libraries across Canada – from St. John's to Victoria. For a list of lending libraries, please visit 

Many items have been particularly difficult to track down. Matters are complicated by the fact that tries to find the most complete copy of an item. This can mean looking at several copies of a single book from one end of the country to the other – a very time consuming process. For this project, Regional Researchers have been hired in St. John's, Halifax, Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, London and Vancouver/Victoria. Their job is to essentially “discover” new titles, assist in finding the most complete copy of a title and arrange for the borrowing of materials. 

Most libraries usually do not provide detailed holding descriptions for serial titles such as the statutes, debates, journals, etc. Hence the researchers must visit the library to determine the actual holdings. As well, if is interested in borrowing a particular item from a library outside of Ottawa, the researcher will first visit the library and meticulously go through the book to make sure no pages are missing or badly damaged. Only if the book is complete, will it be borrowed (unless it is the best copy available). The Appendix to the ... Journals of the House of Assembly of the province of Lower-Canada provides an excellent illustration of how difficult it can be to track down all complete copies of a serial title. For example, there were thirty-one issues of this serial published between 1809 and 1837. examined seventy-three different copies of these issues in nine different libraries in order to find copies that would be best for digitisation. 

Once brought in-house, the book is then catalogued. All cataloguing conforms to the Anglo American Cataloguing Rules, 2nd edition (AACR2). English and French publications are catalogued in the language of the original publication. Once catalogued, the books are then examined page by page to make sure pages aren't missing, or out of order, or damaged. If the book is deemed unsuitable for scanning (due to any of the above mentioned problems), then another copy is sought. 

Metadata is created for each title and for each issue of a serial publication. (Metadata is basically information about information.) It is used by for descriptive, technical, preservation and administrative purposes. Creating metadata is a very labour intensive process, as it involves manually entering information about each page of the book into the computer. 

Scanning, Cleaning and Proofing 

Once the cataloguing and metadata are created, the item can then be scanned. After initially outsourcing the two main technical processes – the actual scanning and the digital transcribing of the text (OCR), has brought both of these processes in-house. In 2001,'s electronic systems specialist, William Wuepplemann, after extensive testing, was able to set up an effective in-house OCR system using Prime Recognition Software. (Because the materials being scanned are older and often have faint printing or unusual fonts, the accuracy rate for the OCR text files is not perfect – usually over 90%, but less for books with faint print or ones that use the earlier forms of letters – for example, “f” was used as a “s”.) In 2004, a Zeutschel OS 10000 scanner was purchased and staff began to scan materials in-house. Images are scanned at 400 dpi in black and white and are stored as compressed TIFF files. Bringing the processes of OCR and scanning in-house has allowed the organization more control over the quality of images produced and better production scheduling – all in a more cost efficient manner. 

Scanning is not always a straightforward process. Although a high-end model scanner is used, even with various adjusted settings, it is not always possible to produce an acceptable image. This is especially true for books where the print is faint on certain pages. In such cases, it was found helpful to first photocopy the faint page using settings on the photocopier to darken the text, and then scan from the photocopied page. For the early issues of the Sessional Papers, it was not unusual to photocopy several dozen pages per volume! (Such a procedure was done as a last resort, after checking to see if other copies had better print.) 

Once a book has been scanned, a staff member then goes through the scanned images, page by page, in order to “clean” the item (for e.g. straightening the image if it is crooked, removing blotches created by dust particles, etc.). Later, another staff member again examines the book page by page, this time ensuring that pages have not been missed, repeated or scanned out of order. Much time is spent on quality control. 

Once the images are made available on ECO, researchers can access them in several ways – through full-text searching (searches on the complete text of the document as well as the metadata), searching of the author, title, subject, publisher, etc., or browsing (author, title, subject, publisher, collection). 

There are currently close to 14,000 volumes (about 2.2 million pages) on ECO. The collection is growing at a rate of over 250,000 pages per year. ECO usage continues to rise substantially every year. While ECO in its first year received 8 million hits, in 2005 there were over 46 million hits, with an average of almost 27,000 pages viewed per day. (In the month of November 2005, the website had 5 million hits!) 

This six-year project proved to be a model of private – public partnership. Revenues were obtained from the following sources: ECO subscriptions, private and corporate donations, government grants (most notably Canadian Heritage's Canadian Culture Online program) and microfiche sales. In addition, Library and Archives Canada has provided substantial in-kind support.9 

Other Official Publications Digitisation Projects is, of course, not the only organization involved in digitising Canada's major government publications. With such massive quantities of government publications already in existence and numerous more being produced every year, there is still much work to be done in making these materials more readily available and there is certainly room for many players on this stage. The Parliament of Canada Web site (managed jointly by the Senate and the House of Commons – working together with the Library of Parliament) is an excellent source for current day legislative materials ( Here can be found the Journals and Debates for both Houses, as well as bills, committee business, and other documents from the 35th Parliament (1996) to present day. The Canada Gazette from 1998 onwards can be found on a website maintained by the Canada Gazette Directorate (part of the Government Information Services Branch) Canada's consolidated statutes and regulations can be found on the Department of Justice's website at 

Indeed many current day federal legislative publications are easily accessible to Canadians. As for the retrospective parliamentary documents, the following are some of the projects currently being undertaken by other organizations. 

Library and Archives Canada 

In December 2004, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) was invited to participate in a joint pilot project led by the University of Toronto and the Internet Archive. The project was intended to test the mass digitisation of bound volumes using a Kirtas robotic scanner.10 

LAC, and other research institutions participating in the project, were each encouraged to submit up to 1,500 volumes of materials. From the onset, LAC was interested in selecting (along with other types of materials), several major government publications. However, they were restricted by the capabilities of the scanner, which could only accommodate bound hardcover volumes in good condition and within a specific range of dimensions. As well, keeping the long term welfare of the books foremost in their minds, LAC staff chose not to scan extremely rare, or preservation copies of materials in their collection. 

Originally LAC had hoped to digitise Royal Commissions and selected briefs as a complement to the seminal Massey Commission Report which the former National Library of Canada had previously digitised. However this was quickly ruled out because many of the volumes were not physically compatible with the scanner. After extensive consultation, both internally with its own specialists, as well as externally, with the Library of Parliament and, the official newspaper of the government – the Canada Gazette – was chosen. It seemed to be the ideal candidate in terms of content (it's a firm favourite with researchers) and its physical fit with the requirements of the scanner. The Gazette for the years 1867-1880 was shipped to the University of Toronto (where the scanner was set up). Unfortunately, in the end, not all issues could be scanned, because it was discovered that the scanner was not capable of handling the thicker and heavier volumes. However, other popular choices, such as French and English volumes of the House of Commons Journals (1901-1954) and the Senate Journals (1901-1953), the Revised Statutes of Canada (1970) and the Committee Proceedings and Evidence (1901-1934) were successfully digitised. 

By participating in this project, LAC was able to acquire, on behalf of Canadians, relatively inexpensive digital copies of important publications. Although there were unexpected glitches and delays in the course of the project, LAC expects to add the digital copies to its electronic collection of Canadiana. 

The Law Library Microform Consortium (LLMC) 

The LLMC is an American non-profit organization very similar to Chartered in 1976 and based at the University of Hawaii, its mandate is to both preserve and provide wider access to legal titles and selected government documents. Like, the LLMC started out by distributing its materials on microfiche. However, in 2003 it too moved into the digital sphere – with the project LLMC Digital. While it has filmed and/or digitised some other types of government publications (for example, American legislative journals), the bulk of the collection focuses on legal materials such as court decisions and reports, legal periodicals, and statutes. While much of its collection is American in content, it does include a significant number of primary legal materials from other countries. 

In regards to Canada, LLMC Digital will include pre-Confederation statutes, as well as post-Confederation statutes for the federal, provincial and territorial governments. Also either already digitised or scheduled to be digitised are such titles as: Cameron's Supreme Court Cases, the Canadian Law Times, Canadian Criminal Cases Annotated, Dominion Law Reports and law reports from the various provinces and many other monographs and serials. For a complete list of Canadian titles intended to be digitised, please visit The collection is available by subscription only. 

Looking Towards the Future 

In January 2006, signed a three-year agreement with the Canadian Research Knowledge Network (CRKN) which has seen the ECO database licensed to forty-six Canadian academic and research libraries. With this agreement, as well as licensing agreements with other non-academic libraries, eighty-five percent of's operations budget will now come from subscription fees. (The remaining funding is obtained through grants, active fundraising and microfiche sales.) Following's June 2005 Strategic Meeting, which had stakeholders discussing sustainability and the organization's future, the CRKN license agreement is, according to President John Teskey, “a very welcome development. This three-year agreement will allow to continue to produce new content …”. Executive Director, Magdalene Albert, notes that: “The partnership between and the research community has been strengthened and is complemented by the substantial in-kind support of Library and Archives Canada.” Although far from assuring's long term survival, this agreement gives the organization a good measure of stability as it begins its next major project in the spring of this year – the digitisation of pre-1920 Canadian periodicals. 

Despite providing many challenges over the past six years, the Canada in the Making project has been a success. An unprecedented number of Canada's early government publications have been made easily accessible to researchers; usage of ECO continues to rise substantially and subscription revenue has increased, bringing closer to becoming a completely sustainable organization. By going digital, has continued to fulfill its mandate to the research community, while broadening its user base to include the larger public. Indeed, the high degree of interest that has been expressed by genealogists, amateur historians and other members of the general public had simply not been anticipated. To acknowledge the success of the CITM project, is in the process of planning a June celebration along with its supporters. 


1. Canada Council, Consultative Group on University Research Libraries, University Research Libraries: Report of the Consultative Group on University Research Libraries (Ottawa: Canada Council, 1978), 25. 

2. Canada Council, Consultative Group on University Research Libraries, University Research Libraries: Report of the Consultative Group on University Research Libraries (Ottawa: Canada Council, 1978), 26. 

3. Burningham, Bradd and Gilles Chiasson, “Achieving the Balance: a Report on the Results of CIHM's Phase IV Survey Project,” Facsimile 19 (May 1988), 5. 

4. Bertrum MacDonald, “Getting the Books Published: the Instrumental Role of Governments and their Agencies,” Facsimile 19 (May 1998): 13-18. 

5. Note: for a more thorough overview of the collection, please go to:  

6. The author would like to express gratitude to Cynthia Hubbertz, Chief, Collection Development, Library of Parliament, for her assistance in preparing the description of the Reconstituted Debates

7. David Farr, “Reconstituting the Early Debates of the Parliament of Canada”, Canadian Parliamentary Review,  (vol. 15, no. 1, spring 1992). 

8. For more information on this project, please see:
The Reconstituted Debates of the House of Commons can be found on ECO at this address:  The Reconstituted Debates of the Senate are located at this address:  

9. A complete list of our partners and subscribers can be found at:  

10. The author wishes to thank Pat MacDonald, Chief, Selection and Searching Unit, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) for providing background information on the project. Ms. MacDonald was responsible for coordinating LAC’s involvement, mostly in terms of the selection, description and shipping of books. Thanks also to Ian McDonald, Government and Law Specialist, Reference and Genealogy Division, Library and Archives Canada. 

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 29 no 1

Last Updated: 2020-03-03