Alouette Canada to digitize millions of books

Canadian libraries, archive services and museums are developing standards that will allow users to more easily search and access their digitized content through a single portal.

The project, which is expected to create an online resource connecting to millions of digitized books and images, is being led by a consortium called Alouette Canada. Participants include several libraries of many post-secondary institutions, the Canadian Council of Archives and the Canadian Museum Association. Discussions have been underway since late last year and the group hopes to have the portal launched by January of 2007.

Digitization of library content and other reference material has become a high priority for these organizations as large firms such as Google, and Microsoft have started their own projects. Other major international institutions such as the U.S. Library of Congress and The British Library have already done much of this work.

According to Carol Moore, chief librarian at the University of Toronto and chair of the Alouette Canada steering committee, the problem is not that Canadian libraries aren’t digitizing their collections. They are doing so in markedly different ways, and are progressing at different rates. This leads to interoperability problems that hinder searching, she said. Plus, projects by Google and others have changed expectations from users.

“They want it to be simple and fast, and they want the full document online. For the most part that’s not available on Google,” Moore said. “You can discover it, but you are then led to a commercial resource. The documents we’re talking about are out of copyright or archival material that just exists in boxes and shelves and is inaccessible to all but a few.”

A prototype of the portal has been created by internal staff at the University of New Brunswick (UNB). John Teskey, director of the UNB library said the site uses the subject terms contained in the federal government Depository Service Program’s online thesaurus as the foundation for its search capability.

“What the tool would do is, as you mouse over a topic, the various sties relating to topic would pop up, surrounding it,” he said. Although some off-the-shelf products to create the portal are probably available, Teskey said Alouette Canada has been using its own resources so far.

Tim Mark, executive director of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, said libraries have known for some time that there was a need for greater standardization, but as more people start conducting research online it becomes more acute.

“People realize that we’ve got an enormous treasurehouse of intellectual holdings. If these can be brought forward to the public . . . it’s a tremendous vision to aspire to,” he said. “It’s not only scholarly (content) but it’s popular as well, and there’s not really a distinction. If you put up information it becomes popular.”

Moore said Alouette Canada will be decentralized, in the sense that libraries will have to deal with their own storage and capacity issues, while the portal will simply take them to local collections. Like Google and other search engines, Alouette Canada’s services will be available for free. Besides the portal, Moore said Alouette Canada will also be creating “discovery tools” to ease the search process and templates that would assist other libraries in digitizing their books and images.

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