Americans’ Best Canadian Idea: ParksCanadaHistory.com

E.M. Kindle, Jasper National Park, c1929

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Canadians interested in the history of our national park system have two American national park historians to thank for a great new website: ParksCanadaHistory.com. Longtime US National Park Service volunteer Randall D. Payne and retired head of the NPS History Program Harry Butowsky have pulled together 100s of Parks Canada publications over the last century, digitized them, and organized them online. The just-launched site contains digital editions of over 225 reports and studies, 200 brochures, and links to more than 500 external digital resources. It’s an amazing resource. 

Visit the site at parkscanadahistory.com, read  below their announcement of the site’s launch, and be sure to visit the site (and its US sister site, NPShistory.com). Kudos, Harry and Randy.

by Randall D. Payne and Harry Butowsky. 

ParksCanadaHistory-screenshot

On June 12, 2012, Parks Canada announced it would consolidate its five regional libraries, in Calgary, Winnipeg, Quebec City, and Halifax, into one nationwide Parks Canada library in Cornwall, Ontario to streamline operations. The consolidation of Parks Canada’s materials into a single library in Ontario has made it challenging for researchers and the Canadian people to access this collection, including its wealth of “grey literature” (reports and publications whose original intent was for internal use).

This is an ongoing problem for governmental libraries in Canada, the United States, and many other countries. Continued tight budgets,
mandated reductions in personnel and the rise of electronic sources on the internet have all contributed to the closings of smaller, regional libraries (most recently, seven Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries). Moreover, the continued expansion of Internet booksellers has put traditional bookstores almost out of business. In spite of the availability of information on the Internet and the ease of access, there is still an important need for libraries and traditional bookstores. Both contribute to an information knowledge base that the public wants to access.

We believe that both traditional and electronic libraries are important repositories of knowledge. Information sharing is a key to effectively managing national parks. To prepare for the future, organizations must understand what previous generations have accomplished. With the disappearance of traditional libraries we must make more use of technology to keep information accessible.

Fortunately, technology to make information readily available is getting cheaper and easier all the time. With the availability of tablet devices and smart phones, information should be no more than a few swipes away. One way to offset this loss of access is through a process of digitization so that materials can be easily accessible to the public. However, the same lack of funding and oftentimes a deficient institutional commitment, has stymied efforts to create such an online repository.

In 1998, the History Program of the National Park Service (NPS) in the United States, under the direction of Dr. Harry A. Butowsky, and with the assistance of a longtime NPS volunteer, Randall D. Payne, began addressing this challenge. The result was the creation of the National Park Service History e-Library, which at the time of Dr. Butowsky’s retirement in 2012, contained over 3,500 books, reports, documents and articles about the National Park Service. In 2013, following Dr. Butowsky’s retirement, we established the NPS Electronic Library (NPSHistory.com), which now contains more than 5,000 books, park
brochures, articles, and other materials as well as links to external digital resources.

Late in 2013, we used the NPSHistory.com model and began the process of converting Parks Canada publications into electronic editions. We enlisted Dr. Alan MacEachern, Director of NiCHE: Network in Canadian History & Environment, to guide us in our efforts.

E.M. Kindle, Jasper National Park, c1929
An example of some of the digital content: E.M. Kindle, The Geological Story of Jasper National Park, Canada, c1929.

On May 19, 2014, we are proud to launch ParksCanadaHistory.com. Initially, we will have digital editions of over 225 reports and studies, 200 brochures and booklets, and links to over 500 external digital resources. Our aim is to add additional digital content on a monthly basis. We believe both the NPS and Parks Canada sites will provide access to the largest collection of digital materials chronicling our respective national parks.

Why is this work so important? The answer to us is obvious. We believe that while resources available to manage our national parks are finite, information is not. Information can be used over and over again. Information can also be used to make up for limited resources. A historic resource study, an interpretive plan, or a natural resource management plan, can be used repeatedly by anyone interested in or need of this information. The time and effort required to complete these documents have been paid for by our federal governments. Researchers and park managers should have ready access to this information. The use and re-use of information not only makes common sense, but is also ecological, sound, and efficient. No information, however, can be useful if it remains in a file cabinet, unknown and unused by our managers and staff. It is only when we can quickly access past and present information and act on it that we contribute to the wellbeing of our parks and provide the best service to park visitors.

Together, ParksCanadaHistory.com and NPShistory.com will provide a vast storehouse of public knowledgeable about our history, our resources, and our parks that form the heritage of the Canadian and American people. We believe our national parks are North America’s best Idea!

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I am a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. I was Director of NiCHE, 2004-15. You can reach me at amaceach@uwo.ca.

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