Making Historical Photographs Accessible Online
The Toronto Public Library Digital Archive is a rich source of Toronto history. From the time an item in the collection is selected for digitization to when it is available in the Toronto Public Library Digital Archive, it undergoes an in-depth process to ensure it is accessible to everyone searching the Digital Archive. As a student at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Information, I had the opportunity to be part of the initial steps in this process while working on a project for the North York Central Library Canadiana Department. The objective of the project was to create metadata records for a collection of historical photographs that were recently donated to the library by the North York Historical Society (NYHS).
If you’re not familiar with the concept of metadata it is broadly defined as data about data. In this project metadata was any details about a photograph gathered from a NYHS database and NYHS scrapbooks: date, description, size, format, spatial location and subject headings. The metadata is attached to each photograph on Digital Archive. These metadata records are also what leads to the discovery of a photograph when you search the Digital Archive.
In working with a historical photographic collection there are challenges in gathering descriptive information. For example, in trying to determine the subject(s) of a photograph I had to look closely at them and think creatively. This is where my role in the process got interesting.
While many photographs in the NYHS photograph collection showcase important landmarks in North York like Gibson House and the Golden Lion Hotel, images of uncommon historical scenes posed an interesting challenge. When creating these metadata records it was important to consider which subjects headings would make scenes like plane crashes and children playing on a farm findable for anyone searching the Digital Archive.
Another challenge was photographs in NYHS collection that had too little or incomplete information and required outside research. The collection includes a photograph of the Weston Foundry and Machine Shop, but no date or location information about it. When I came across this photo, I needed to fill in these gaps with further research in the Canadiana Department. With the help of the Canadiana Department staff, I finally found this information in a Directory of North York from the 1920’s. This type of additional research ensures complete metadata records for NYHS photographs that can be searched to find photographs in the Digital Archive.
Working through the challenges of creating good metadata records is an initial step in the process, but all together this digitization project will help make the collection of the Canadiana Department more accessible to you. While working on this project I also learned about the many historical materials already available through the Digital Archive. Even more, there are lots of easy ways to access these materials like the interactive Toronto Neighbourhoods map, to which the NYHS photograph collection will be added. The North York Central Library Canadiana Department has a great collection of North York history to be discovered online and in the library.