Harnessing the Power of Digitization

By Rob Alexander


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[A.O. Wheeler], [ca. 1915- ca. 1930], Photographer/Underwood and Underwood Publishers, N.Y., U.S.A., WMCR, Underwood and Underwood Publishers fonds (V465/PD/3/132/02)


For years, I’ve been searching for the source of a quote attributed to Arthur Oliver Wheeler about his vision of a “wonder trail” along the Upper Bow and Athabasca river valleys. I’m curious to know what else Wheeler, co-founder of the Alpine Club of Canada, had to say about this idea, known today as the Icefields Parkway. I finally had an “aha!” moment this winter when I discovered that Wheeler’s journals are at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. But my “aha!” moment quickly vanished even though it’s a short drive to Banff from my home in Calgary: Life is busy, and we are in the middle of a pandemic, after all. So, imagine my pleasure when I learned that the Whyte Museum is digitizing Wheeler’s journals and uploading them to its online collection. Suddenly, Wheeler’s journals are at my fingertips, and that is the power of digitization: Making the inaccessible accessible.


Digitization and accessibility


“The mandate of the Archives, of any archives, is accessibility,” says the Whyte Museum’s Reference Archivist and Librarian Lindsay Stokalko. “We’re always thinking about how we can do better, and digitization is a big one.”


Digitization is a multi-step process that turns a physical object, a photograph or diary, into a digital image. The first step is to use a scanner or digital camera to create high-resolution images of historical material. The next step is to ensure those images are available online with descriptive information and transcripts.


The Whyte Museum isn’t new to digitization, either. Museum staff began digitizing Byron Harmon’s photographs in 1999; in 2007, they began mailing photo orders as digital files on CD.

But now, in response to COVID-19 and a desire to make more of its materials available, the Whyte Museum is rapidly expanding its already substantial digital presence.


A digital push


Along with digitizing more of the materials held in Archives and Special Collections and the Art and Heritage Collections, this digital push includes virtual offerings, such as exhibits, openings, and presentations. Meanwhile, the Digital Vault holds the online version of The Cairn, Fireside Chats, virtual book talks and cooking classes. Staff are also updating the online database with newly catalogued items, so even if those materials are not digitized, researchers can still discover them.


At the moment, the digital collection has 27,832 photographs and 279 objects from Archives downloadable as PDFs, such as scrapbooks, photo albums, diaries and letters, and 15,074 images of items from the Art and Heritage collections (6,098 artworks and 8,976 objects).


The Whyte’s vast holdings


While growing, what’s available online is small compared to the Whyte Museum’s vast physical collections that document the social, political, and economic history of the Canadian Rockies and the world’s mountain cultures.


The Archives alone has 350 metres of text records, 700,000 photographs, and over 1,500 sound recordings, motion pictures and videos. There are also 8,500 books, maps, periodicals, films and newspapers. Meanwhile, the Art Library has 1,000 books, while the Alpine Club of Canada Library has 4,000 books and periodicals. Finally, the art collection holds 10,000 objects.

Given that digitization is labour intensive and expensive, Elizabeth Kundert-Cameron, the head of Archives and Special Collections, says it’s impossible to digitize everything.


Instead, she’s focusing on unrepresented areas such as photography produced after 1940 and collections created by women, namely Elizabeth Rummel, Margaret Greenham, and Aileen Harmon. Kundert-Cameron is also focusing on at-risk materials that could be lost through degradation. “Scrapbooks was a priority because they’re hard to access, and they’re a bomb waiting to go off with that acid paper,” says Kundert-Cameron.


If there’s a bright spot amid the COVID-19 restrictions, a number of museum staff members are free to work on digital projects, allowing the museum to accomplish more digital projects. While Collections Cataloguer Amie Lalonde creating creates digital content from the Whyte House, Registrar and Curatorial Assistant Ciara Linteau produces virtual exhibition openings.


Meanwhile, Letters to Mother has Education Manager Jennifer Royal and Archival Assistant Kate Riordon digitizing 10,000 letters Catharine wrote to her mother between 1930 and 1962. So far, Royal and Riordon have scanned two decades’ worth of letters amounting to 6,751 pages with one decade to go (1935–45).


“The letters are rich in detail and offer a window into the local community, world events, Peter and Catharine’s artwork, their philanthropy, and their relationship with the arts community and the Stoney Nakoda,” says Kundert-Cameron.


Along with staff time, Library Archives Canada Documentary Heritage Communities Program (DHCP) grants have been critical in this work. The DHCP grants have allowed the Whyte Museum to buy a book scanner and digitize notable collections, such as Wheeler’s diaries and the diaries of Lillian Gest. Gest, an American, travelled to Banff nearly every summer for 60 years. This grant also allowed for the digitization of Gest’s 16mm films and 35mm slides created by Alpine Club of Canada members.


The changing face of research


And thanks to a substantial Federal Government Museums Assistance Program Grant (MAP) in 2017, the Whyte Museum’s digital push is also allowing it to adapt to the changing face of research.


“The other thing that COVID has taught us is that this notion of researching and looking at things online, it’s not going to go away,” says Chief Curator of Art and Heritage Anne Ewen. “There are individuals who still want to do the research, but they want to do it from home and not spend their resources to travel here. It’s a completely different approach.”


Even though this work began before COVID-19, the pandemic has emphasized the importance of having robust digital archives. And whether it’s a pandemic or not, accessibility is still the goal.

“I hope it encourages people to use our collections a lot more. We already have a pretty great international reach of people who use our materials, and I hope it just grows,” says Stokalko.

To explore Whyte Museum’s online resources, go to https://www.whyte.org/research-collections.

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