Creating the First Cultural Digital Library in Canada’s North

Professor leads project to bridge the information gap for some of Canada’s most isolated people.

By Suzanne Vuch

Ali Shiri (above) and co-investigator Dinesh Rathi want to bridge the information gap for some of Canada’s most isolated people.
Ali Shiri (above) and co-investigator Dinesh Rathi want to bridge the information gap for some of Canada’s most isolated people.

(Edmonton) When you live 400 kilometres from the nearest library, getting information can be a real challenge. Professor Ali Shiri of the University of Alberta’s School of Library and Information Studies is leading a project to address this issue. Together with co-investigator Dinesh Rathi, Shiri and a team of collaborators have begun to bridge the information gap for some of Canada’s most isolated people with a project called Digital Library North.

Currently, people in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region—an area that spans 90,650 square kilometres—must travel to the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre to access hard-copy information. The challenges with distance and winter above the treeline limit the access. The SSHRC-funded project will create a digital library infrastructure to address the unique information needs in Canada’s northern regions over the next three years.

Redefining the digital library

“The Inuvialuit Settlement Region has six different communities—Paulatuk, Ulukhaktok, Sachs Harbour, Tuktoyaktuk, Inuvik and Aklavik—and they each have their own information needs, and their own info-seeking behaviours,” says Shiri. “We make assumptions about digital libraries, that they should contain materials like books and journals like we have on campus, and in urban areas, but this digital library is a cultural digital library.”

The digital library will host materials such as oral history collections, images and photos of various people and cultural activities, maps, digitized versions of cultural objects, and language-related resources.

“The language spoken is Inuvialuktun,” explains Shiri. “It is very important for these communities to have access to these language resources in an easy and accessible way.”

Right now, the materials these communities have to help preserve the language are in a physical format, available only on DVDs in certain places. “Part of this project is to digitize that content and make it available on that platform that people can easily access.”

A democratic approach to organizing information

With a digital library, the content possibilities are limitless, and so are the ways the material can be organized. “We are going beyond creating a digital library which uses the conventional methods of categorization and databases,” says Shiri. “We are finding out from the community how they would access this material.”

Standard western classification systems (think Dewey Decimal) may not work for this kind of content, or for the residents of these communities. “A lot of it is oral culture, and that’s why we are going to ask people ‘How do you identify this? How do you label this image? How do you describe this image?’ rather than imposing our standard ways of organizing information,” he says.

“Some of the images are not yet digitized—they are not findable or searchable. There is no caption, so there is no metadata attached.”

Shiri and his team plan to apply a combination of standard information organization practices and user-generated content like social tagging. “It is a more democratic approach to the organization of the information,” he says.

Community driven, community based

Conducting an environmental scan of the people of the North to discover what their information needs are and how they would like their information organized could take years of ethnographic field work. And though Shiri has two research assistants located in the ISR right now, partnerships with local organizations are key.

“We are working with a number of organizations in this project,” Shiri says. “Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre, Aurora Research Institute,Aurora College, Inuvik Centennial Library, Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, and others are helping us learn what the information needs are.”

“Through this project, we are tapping into Indigenous knowledge—it is their way of life, their way of understanding and knowing things,” Shiri explains. “We make a lot of assumptions in our information organization practices. [We have] biases that we don’t even know. We are being careful about organizing content in one way or another, because the user might not access it in the same way.”

“Our users are a wide range of people: junior high and high-school students, librarians, workers, elders, hunters and trappers, community organizations, people who are actually living and working, studying there, college students, researchers in the North,” Shiri says. He emphasizes that the project is community-driven and community-based, and that the U of A’s expertise is one tool.

“The project cannot be successful unless we have close collaboration with these communities. And they are interested. They are giving us access to some of their most important materials. We need their collaboration, and we are learning as we go.”

Partnerships are key

It was through partner organizations that the local relevance and importance of a very interesting collection of documents came to light. Shiri and his team wouldn’t have known the significance of the Committee for Original Peoples Entitlement (COPE) collection without the input of their partner organizations.

Currently, the COPE collection is not accessible at all—it consists of dozens of boxes of uncatalogued documents. But these documents are a rich source of pictures, stories, interviews, surveys/land use plans, and correspondence between the Government of Canada and Inuvialuit Regional Corporation.

“This is an example of something that we didn’t identify as a priority, but through talking to people there, they told us that this is of critical importance,” says Shiri. “It is a part of the historical, cultural and political history of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region.”