October 24-26, 2007
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Paper: AlouetteCanada: Canada's National Open Digitization Initiative

Brian Bell, Executive Director, AlouetteCanada, Canada


As society shifts increasingly to a digital, Web-based environment, Canadians have felt that it is vital to have a national vision and a comprehensive plan both to present our cultural heritage on-line to our citizens and to the world and to ensure free and enduring access to that heritage. AlouetteCanada (http://www.alouettecanada.ca/) was formed to meet this need.

Keywords: metadata, aggregation, discovery portal, collaboration, Canada, national strategy, digitization

What is AlouetteCanada?

AlouetteCanada (http://www.alouettecanada.ca) is a non-profit, non-governmental initiative governed by a board of directors composed of distinguished Canadian scholars and directors of major Canadian research libraries, archives and museums.   Launched in June 2006 with the financial support of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, the AlouetteCanada initiative is committed to creating, disseminating, preserving and sustaining the Canadian memory knowledge base in digital form to benefit all Canadians.

AlouetteCanada is a member-supported nation-wide alliance of both high level organizations, including provincial and national level bodies representing provincial libraries, archives, museums and associations, the publishing and broadcasting communities and more, as well as an alliance of those holders, creators and contributors of content including individual libraries, archives, museums and even individual contributors.

Shared Vision

The AlouetteCanada vision is not unique.  It grew from the inspiration and participation of many other Canadian organizations that have shared similar goals and visions over the past 10 years. At the national level the Library and Archives Canada is leading the development of a comprehensive Canadian Digital Information Strategy. The Canadian museums community operates the Virtual Museum of Canada and Artefacts Canada fostering discovery of material drawn from over 1,000 Canadian museums.  The Canadian archives community has created the Archives Canada service to bring together their metadata into another discovery portal.  The former Canadian Initiative on Digital Libraries developed a strategy called Digital Canada numérique and early in 2007, merged with AlouetteCanada, the vision and initiative launched by the Canadian Association of Research Libraries and partners in June 2006.

Similar visions are playing out at a provincial level as well.  Libraries in Alberta have created The Alberta Library and Lois Hole Campus Digital Library; in Nova Scotia there is a Nova Scotia Digital Collections Initiative; and Ontario libraries have created Knowledge Ontario and specific digitization and search services known as Our Ontario.  What’s more, the archives within each province have created their own aggregated provincial lists of finding aids as well, such as the British Columbia Archival Union List (BCAUL).

AlouetteCanada’s vision is to be inclusive of and supportive of the vision and work of all of these services.  It is vital that Canada be served by a wide range of services that gather or  ‘aggregate’  the metadata from their specific sectors or regions in order to ensure strong and widespread political support for these efforts and to facilitate the enormous effort of further aggregating this metadata into a national level discovery service.  AlouetteCanada is working to unite all of these efforts under a high level, coordinated umbrella vision of a unified service for all Canadians and all of our content holders and creators.

The Mission

AlouetteCanada, therefore, has three key goals:

  • to support the development of digital content about Canada, or of interest toCanadians   
  • to develop a unified search portal  through which Canadians can successfully access the content held by its member contributors.  AlouetteCanada provides a powerful “one place to start your search” reaching across our traditional institutional silos so our users can access the digital content being created, disseminated and preserved by its member contributors and to sustain the knowledge base of Canadian memory organizations in digital form.
  • to empower Canadians to interact with the collection content in new, Web 2.0 ways.

How Is Alouettecanada Achieving These Goals?

AlouetteCanada aggregates metadata for digital content from local and regional systems and partners for the search portal.  We work together to promote awareness of these new and unique resources to local, national and international audiences.  AlouetteCanada is also a full-service provider for any agency or individual that chooses to use the open source software tools that AlouetteCanada makes freely available to content contributors working through its aggregator partners who act as their local or regional service and support provider.  AlouetteCanada is coordinating the development of a network of regional and provincial networks and repositories coast to coast to ensure that metadata and content in all forms, not just published materials, are secure and freely available for posterity.  Furthermore, AlouetteCanada will work with the commercial world to ensure that the rights and needs of both creators and users of copyright material are met in equal measure. And last, AlouetteCanada also has a significant role to play in political advocacy, influencing public information policy and carrying out fundraising on behalf of its member constituencies.  

Due to the vital importance of promoting regional synergies and strengthening provincial and national aggregation services where they already exist – and even fostering their formation where needed - AlouetteCanada is also dedicated to shining the spotlight on the local content provider, ensuring that the local or partner ‘brand’ is always prominent.  For example, each contributing organization that uses the toolkit to create its metadata and upload its digital content is able to create a ‘view’ that has its own ‘look’ and style and has an identifiable and unique URL.

Early Adopters

AlouetteCanada already has many dozens of libraries, archives, museums and galleries from across Canada stepping forward to be part of a group of initial or charter projects. The portal database (http://alouette.ourontario.ca/Ourontario/AlouetteCanada/search) has metadata or full digital content on-line (either samples or full sets) from close to 400 Archives, Academic and Public Libraries, including a growing number of Canadian Association of Research Libraries, Museums, Art Galleries, Historical Societies, local newspapers and many specialized collections such as Canadiana.org and the Our Roots/Nos Racines project.  Many of these are provincial or national level in scope. The growing set of 136,000 records is the tip of the iceberg.  They are selected as sets of sample records to test our metadata importing scripts, but they represent over 1,000,000 from the full collections of the initial participants when the complete sets are loaded.

Digitization Support

AlouetteCanada will be mounting a fund raising campaign that will leverage the power of the collective partnership of all of the memory, educational, cultural and content creation sectors to generate millions of dollars annually that will be plowed back into the further digitization efforts of its partner members.  

End User Interfaces And Services

AlouetteCanada ‘s bilingual search and discovery portal (http://alouette.ourontario.ca/search) provides unified access to the collections of partner members from coast to coast and from all sectors.  Already featuring several ‘provincial views’, AlouetteCanada continues to develop more specialized views.  For example, British Columbia recently launched a ‘view’ called The West Beyond the West (http://search.ourontario.ca/BC/search) – a title drawn from a popular history published about that province.

The “Portal” will provide a ‘launch’ point for our searchers to explore the national ‘collection’ in totality.  However, we will provide users with a wide variety of many specialized sub-views as well – limited only by our imaginations and the themes that will make sense as easier starting points depending on our user needs.  There will be a growing number of Provincial and other geographical divisions.  The portal will include a variety of other sub-divisions based on identified needs, such as First Nations history and current experience in its many aspects; divisions by format such as Images, Newspapers,  and specialized sub-sets such as a Virtual National Portrait Gallery; Educational and curriculum support in general: historical and thematic such as War, Immigration experience, Westward Expansion, Industrial Expansion, the Fur Trade, the Acadian Experience; and also a genealogical space for family research.

Users will be able to interact with the discovery portal and collection contents as well as each other in a wide variety of Web 2.0 ways: to use personal space to track research, save lists of favourites and ‘discoveries’ and make recommendations on various topics; to interact with others and set up communities of interest; to create temporary and permanent virtual exhibitions, on-line books, journals and research records for others to see, add to and interact with from anywhere in AlouetteCanada and beyond; and to provide space to save research topics of common interest for such as genealogists and historians.

AlouetteCanada will not exist in isolation but will work with and leverage the power and popularity of international services such as FLICKR, Youtube, Second Life, Google Maps and Earth.  AlouetteCanada technical committee has already been in touch with the developers at Michael, the international discovery portal based in Europe, with the intention to participate in order to make Canadian content even more discoverable and convenient to use.

Sustainability And Support Infrastructure

AlouetteCanada will be a distributed, decentralized network architecture of servers, software and service-providers.  The goal is to empower each region and minimize central technical and administrative costs.  These servers will  provide the first step in data ingestion and normalization; host central digitization tools (either the suite provided by AlouetteCanada or other that fits local requirements);  ensure LOCKSS-like redundancy and long-term preservation of the data and metadata; and ensure load balancing across the national network.

By taking this decentralized approach, AlouetteCanada will remain a thin, low-cost coordinating body.  It will work to ensure that most of the technical digitization and support work will be carried out by the existing or emerging ‘aggregation’ or regional service provider partners.  They, in turn, will then carry out the work of uploading metadata in an upward flow controlled mainly by the contributors in contrast to a primarily ‘harvested’ approach controlled from the centre.  These regional aggregators will assist with the establishment of a set of Centres of Digitization Expertise across the country that will assist others with their training and digitization needs.

What’s Next?

AlouetteCanada has a very ambitious agenda over the next two years.  The Director and the Board will continue to build an alliance of service provider partners in turn willing to take on a set of service roles for their contributors.  This decentralized, distributed set of partners will do most of the ‘heaving lifting’ at the grass roots level, including providing training and support for constituents in their catchment areas, plus help provide desk support, Web site design, temporary technical help in the form of digitization centres and possibly even traveling digitization labs.  And finally, they will provide funding and help AlouetteCanada to administer fund raised dollars for local projects and grant matching. These could be Provincial Library services (like The Alberta Library), Provincial Archive aggregation services (like Archeion in Ontario) or National level services for specific sectors.  Some of these are already in place and functioning well.

AlouetteCanada welcomes contact not only from within Canada but from initiatives with similar mandates throughout the world.

Cite as:

Bell, B., AlouetteCanada: Canada's National Open Digitization Initiative, in International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting (ICHIM07): Proceedings, J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. 2007. Published October 24, 2007 at http://www.archimuse.com/ichim07/papers/bell/bell.html