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Google-like search site connects 60 million pages of Canadian history

Call it the Google of Canadian history.

An ambitious new search engine has been launched by an alliance of digital heritage advocates designed to allow one-stop searching for centuries of Canadian history.

The Canadiana Discovery Portal combs through more than 60 million pages of information from 30 different library, museum and archive collections across the country.

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From old Saskatchewan postcards to sheet music, the search engine brings together access to 14 different institutional collections from coast to coast and in both French and English.

Unlike traditional academic search engines, this one has been designed for ease.

"It's more Google-like," said Ron Walker, executive director of, an organization that facilitates digital initiatives and is spearheading the portal initiative.

"Here's everything that exists, type in a name and see what comes up."

The collections are varied. Quick searches on perennial topics in Canadian conversations yield a surprising diversity of results.

On hockey, there are photographs of Lester B. Pearson on the ice in Switzerland, as well as an 1856 account of Captain F.W. Beechey's travels through the Northwest Passage and his observation of First Nations playing a game that looked like hockey.

The portal isn't meant just for academics.

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Genealogists can peek in and see where their family names may pop up in local newspapers. Artists can seek inspiration from old images or sound, whether they live in Montreal or Morocco.

"The biggest point is really access for Canadians and those who want to learn about it Canada," said Brent Roe, the executive director of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries.

Linking the online collections together is a costly endeavour.

In June 2009, received almost $200,000 from the federal government just to develop software to help institutions connect parts of their collections.

But that doesn't cover the cost of transferring physical collections online.

Mr. Walker estimates that to digitize all of Canada's heritage materials created before the 1990s - when content start to be created in a digital format - could cost as much as $1 billion.

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Back in 2005, Library and Archives Canada officials started a national discussion on a digital information strategy for the country. But after issuing their final report, they closed the books on a national approach.

Individual organizations are creating digital content on their own.

For example, by the end of this year, Library and Archives expects to double the volume of their online content, including giving access to digitized images of original census documents from 1861 and 1871.

In Quebec, approximately 10 million objects dating back to the 17th century have now been digitized by the provincial archives. In Vancouver, the local public library has put 25,000 pictures of B.C. and the Yukon online.

There is also the work of private companies like Google to digitize books.

The challenge with all digital efforts is keeping up with the pace.

In addition to the reams of new documents being created, each day copyright expires on historical documents, making them freely available to be digitized and published.

"One of the issues is to preserve it and the other is to make it accessible," said Mr. Walker.

"We think by making interesting content accessible it will generate more interest from the public."

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