In Canada, “the north” takes on an entirely new meaning. Its lands are vast, wild, steeped in untamed beauty and home to a people with a rich cultural legacy hundreds of years old. But due to great distances and a lack of infrastructure, many northern communities are far not just from each other, but from their very heritage. Under the Digital Library North research project, the University of Alberta is helping to forge those cultural connections in Canada’s north.
In 2012, professor Ali Shiri of the School of Library and Information Studies in the Faculty of Education was presented with an intriguing idea: could the University create a digital library of cultural heritage materials for the Inuvialuit Settlement Region? It’s a tall order: the Inuvialuit Settlement Region is a huge 90,650 km² area home to the Inuvialuit people. They all share a common heritage, yet the majority of their cultural artifacts physically reside at the Inuvialuit Cultural Centre in Inuvik, a journey of several-hundred kilometres for Inuvialuit communities such as Sachs Harbour, Paulatuk, and Ulukhakok.
“In Canada’s arctic, you develop a new appreciation of where ‘north’ really is,” says Shiri, who immediately saw the importance of such an undertaking.
After securing funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada in 2014, Shiri and co-investigator Dinesh Rathi launched Digital Library North, the first cultural heritage digital library developed for Inuit communities in the western Arctic.
“Digital Library North is bridging the information gap that people experience in the far north,” explains Shiri. “These communities want to have access to their cultural heritage resources, to teach their kids the Inuvialuktun language. And as a university, we have an institutional commitment to ensure the cultural heritages of our Indigenous and Inuit communities are respected and preserved for future generations.”
For the first year of the project, Shiri’s sole focus was community engagement. With thousands of artifacts to digitize, the input of the Inuvialuit people was essential. But once he and his team had identified, prioritized, and incorporated those cultural resources into the digital library, their attention turned to the technical requirements needed to make the library function. With Omeka already chosen as their digital library software platform and the Arts Resource Centre helping set up the open-source application, the next step was hosting and maintaining the server through Information Services and Technology (IST).
“IST was very supportive of this project,” says Shiri. “They were efficient, responsive, prompt, and they understood the social responsibility of helping people access information in an unfettered and unbiased way. Their support helped make this project possible.”
IST provided a virtual machine to place the Omeka platform, then handled the maintenance and administration of the server itself. The work was completed seamlessly, and although Shiri’s contract with IST was originally meant to end in 2018, he readily extended it to 2020, thereby ensuring that the support will maintain and sustain the digital library until technological infrastructure in the north is strong enough to take over the digital library server.
“There is this trust that has been built between not just our research team and IST, but also between IST and those communities in the north, and that trust is not easily obtained,” Shiri says. “Projects like this show the deeper layers of what IST can provide. Not just technical systems and information security, but projects that uplift the whole people.”
Now that Digital Library North is complete and functional, anyone with an internet connection can view its collections. The library’s 4000+ digital artifacts include Inuvialuit books, photos, music, oral histories, family histories, and Inuvialuktun language resources. All three dialects of the Inuvialuktun language have been preserved, along with videos on drum dancing, hunting, whaling, and traditional games and stories.
“As citizens in this country, we have a social responsibility to support our citizens, wherever they are located,” Shiri claims. “Now these remote northern communities can feel empowered and enabled. They have access to cultural heritage materials for self-determination, for language learning, for all the things Canadians are entitled to, regardless of where they live.”
Ready to discover true north? Dive into Inuvialuit culture and explore their digital library for yourself!