reconciliationDigital libraries aren’t just about providing public domain classics and pleasure reading. They can serve an extremely valuable role in the preservation of historical documents, and provide access to the public and to educators for documents which otherwise might be inaccessible.

I was delighted to learn that our National Library and Archive Canada (LAC) is undertaking just such a project: they are digitizing, and making available for access, thousands of pages worth of material from the recently concluded Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools.

This has been a huge, huge story in Canada. Several of our First Nations communities have been in the news lately with crisis-level mental health situations, poor health and education outcomes, critical housing and infrastructure needs and other problems. These all have a historical base in the residential schools system of the past, which removed children from their communities and had devastating effects on the culture and stability of these cultures.

One of the key recommendations to come out of the commission’s findings was that curricula relating to the history of the residential schools be incorporated into every child’s education; that citizens learn and understand what happened in these communities, and that this education form the foundation of a future nation-to-nation relationship which will improve the lives of our First Nations peoples.

But how can we do this without access to information? What could I, as an urban non-aboriginal, possibly know about rural Northern life—unless I have access to real historical documents? And how, under a traditional publishing model, could the testimony of 6,000 survivors, the documents collected relating to their treatment, and the over 300,00 images the Truth and Reconciliation Commission collected possibly by synthesized into a useful form?

The answer is, it really can’t be. The only way that scholars, teachers and regular folks can have access to such a sheer quantity of stuff is electronically. As the news release explains:

“Both the NCTR and LAC are committed to preserving documents of national importance that bear witness to the Canadian experience. Making the records accessible to residential school survivors, their families, and the public is a key outcome of the agreement.”

Forget Angry Birds and Facebook cat pictures. Projects like these are the true gift of the Internet age. What a wonderful way to leverage the power of technology to actually do some good for a change.

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