Student-led project provides rare insight into Canadian history with some of its first newspapers

An early copy of Le Canadien
Researchers at U of T Scarborough have for the first time developed a free, accessible database of Canada's earliest newspaper.
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Tina Adamopoulos

U of T Scarborough researchers are providing valuable insight into Canadian history by creating an accessible, free database of the nation’s first newspapers – for the very first time.

Spearheaded by Sébastien Drouin, an associate professor in the department of language studies at U of T Scarborough, the bilingual project, “Early Modern Canadian Newspapers Online” is a collection of newspapers from the second half of the eighteenth century – from 1752 to 1810 – printed in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Québec and Ontario.

“There are libraries at other universities that have started some digitization of Canadian newspapers, but there are no other projects right now dedicated to early modern Canadian newspapers,” says Drouin, an expert in early modern clandestine literature and early modern journalism.

“We’re very excited about giving access to documents that are almost impossible to find right now.”

The project is one of five at U of T Scarborough recently supported by the Jackman Scholars-in-Residence (SiR) program. Fueled by the Jackman Humanities Institute, the tri-campus initiative offers undergraduate students a platform to conduct research with a professor working in the humanities or social sciences for an intensive four-week period.

It took a multi-disciplinary team of students in early modern and Canadian histories, book history and the computer sciences to drive the project. Making early modern newspapers accessible starts with connecting with institutions across the country who have them. U of T Scarborough Library’s Digital Scholarship Unit (DSU), an initiative that helps researchers with digital collections, digital preservation and scholarly communications, was a key partner in helping the SiR team achieve this.

Sebastien Drouin

Part of Sébastien Drouin's research looks at early modern journalism (Submitted photo)

The team was sent microfilms, a piece or length of film that holds microphotographs of a newspaper or other documents like a catalog, which requires a microfilm reader to view.

The UTSC Library has supported the discovery and digitization of 24 newspapers (so far) through partnerships with the Canadian Research Knowledge Network and the University of New Brunswick Libraries. In fact, the UTSC Library is now the owner of a nineteenth-century newspaper called Le Canadien

Five U of T students worked on populating the database with the microfilms to create searchable bio-bibliographical profiles of the newspapers, including its printers, first journalists and the context of publication.

There are 30 copies of various newspapers in the database, the majority being full-runs published in 1752 – the year that the Halifax Gazette, Canada’s first newspaper, was printed in Nova Scotia. Another find were 18th century subscribers lists to the Québec Gazette, manuscripts which showed that most readers were men who settled in the then British colony.

“Newspapers were less about freedom of expression and more of a colonial enterprise,” Drouin says. ”It slowly evolved into a vehicle for expressing your opinion.”

UTSC students Sapphire Davis and Tanya Ng Cheong were work-study students with DSU, who participated in the SiR program.

Ng Cheong, a third-year English, journalism and creative writing student, prepared materials to be processed for categorization. This included sorting and examining microphotographs for damage, and the tedious process of documenting page numbers, dates, titles and locations of publication for each item.

Ng Cheong, an international student from Mauritius, says that the project has been a unique way to learn about Canadian history.

“A really interesting part for me has been learning about Canadian history,” Ng Cheong says. “I’m not learning about it in class. I’m learning from the newspapers people were reading centuries ago in Canada. It tells me so much more than what I could have read on a Wikipedia page, for example.”

For the SiR project, Davis and Ng Cheong took a deeper dive into the contents of the newspapers themselves, which included transcribing the articles, searching for any mentions of notable people in history and researching additional context for the database.

Students are also investigating the newspapers’ content through a decolonial lens, with the goal of helping academics studying Black and Indigenous history easily access resources.

“We saw ads for slave auctions, notices for search warrants and really paid attention to the language used,” says Davis, a fifth-year French and linguistics student. “I think our first step in the decolonization part of this project is that we can prove what happened in Canadian history and do the work to dismantle that.”

The team will continue to develop the database, with hopes of launching it next year. Meanwhile, the UTSC Library will work with student staff through its Emerging Professionals program to provide additional opportunities for U of T students to gain experience in software programming and processing work utilized in the SiR project.