Americas and Oceania Collections blog

22 February 2013

Editing Canada: help Team Americas and Wikimedia with a new digital collection

As the Picturing Canada digitisation project reaches critical mass the Library's Wikipedian in Residence needs your help - and has photos of Canada's cats to share.

In 1895, an amendment to Canadian law allowed the British Museum to receive one copy of all Canadian intellectual property deposted for copyright registration. This situation persisted until 1924, when - as part of a general reworking of Canadian copyright law - the right of receipt was removed.

During these thirty years, the Department of Agriculture - who administered copyright - regularly parcelled up half their deposits and sent them to London. As well as books, maps and sheet music, the collection included a copy of every photograph copyrighted in Canada in this period. These are now held by the British Library and, despite some of the works being lost in their original transit (thanks to the sinking of the Empress of Ireland) or added to other collections (such as the Geraldine Moodie photographs held by the British Museum), they represent a significant collection of early twentieth-century Canadian photography.

The interesting - and unusual - aspect of this collection is that it's entirely unselective. Anyone who submitted two copies of their picture, the correct form, and the right amount of money would have it copyrighted; it would be entered into the collections without any regard for its artistic merits. As a result, the collection includes some entirely unexpected material:

The Globe kittens (HS85-10-13446-3) 

We don't yet know anything about the "Globe Kittens" (1902), but it seems a reasonable bet that not many serious photographic curators would have bought and preserved prints of them! As well as what you might expect - portraits, buildings, scenic pictures of mountains - there are hundreds more images like this - unexpected, provoking, and quite possibly completely forgotten. So far, working through the catalogue data and the early scans, we've found cute animals, urban-regeneration proposals, salacious stereograms, and at least two attempts to copyright a movie.

The British Library recently got funding from Wikimedia UK and from the Eccles Centre for American Studies to digitise the bulk of the collection. We're planning to have them released to the public by mid-April, but we've hit a snag. While the digitisation itself has proceeded well, and we have a veritable mountain of metadata to work with, we still need to do the final step of cropping and orienting the pictures - this part can't easily be automated, and my fingers are getting pretty tired.

So, we're going to run a workshop at the British Library on Monday 18th March to try and steamroller through the backlog of image processing, and we're looking for volunteers to help. We'll provide laptops (though you can of course bring your own) and lunch; you'll have a chance to get a sneak preview of this collection before it goes public, as well as helping us look for interesting or significant images that we haven't discovered so far.

If you're interested in coming along and joining our experiment in "physical crowdsourcing", please get in touch!


[Ed: Some of our regular readers will recognise this collection as the one Phil has mentioned here, here and here. For those of you who would like to know (quite a lot) more about the collection and its contents Phil's thesis on it is available here.]


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