Nine months ago, Charlevoix went on a little hiatus. At about the same time, the Archives Canada-France database went offline. The blog was no great loss. But the database was -- for professional, student and avocational researchers alike.
Archives Canada-France had been created as the result of a partnership between Library and Archives Canada, or actually the National Archives of Canada, as it was still called at the time, and the Archives de France. It was part of the Canada-France 2004 Program to celebrate four hundred years of exploration and dialogue. The project was shepherded by dynamic archivists and had powerful political backers. Tens of thousands of documents from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were digitized. They were melded, along with inventory descriptions, into a sweet new database. Over the years, it came to contain over a million images. It was hosted on the servers of France's Ministère de la Culture.
Archives Canada-France was the
crucial tool for anyone wanting to locate documents in the colonial archives. Its contents were not exhaustive, by any means, but they were extensive. I spent countless hours on it myself. Sure, Library and Archives Canada's own database contained some of the same inventory descriptions and digital documents, but its interface was never easy to navigate -- and it still isn't today. Moreover, the Archives Canada-France database included material inaccessible via LAC (notably from the archives départementales of Charente-Maritime, Gironde, and Pyrénées-Atlantiques).
Last winter, users of Archives Canada-France began noticing that something was amiss. Trying to access Archives Canada-France in mid-January, I encountered an ominous page that showed that the site had been taken down by Islamist cyber-terrorists, as part of an assault on the servers of the Ministère de la Culture. Others may have seen it. Shortly thereafter, the hackers' page was replaced by a governmental page stating that the site was temporarily unavailable: under maintenance, it said. So I waited. Others waited too. By mid March, tired of waiting, one young historian wrote to an archivist friend in France, who hinted that the Direction des Archives de France had decided that the database's antiquated code was too vulnerable, and that they lacked the resources -- human and financial -- and the will to revive and maintain it. The site was not, contrary to appearances, under maintenance. The young historian wrote to more senior historians and to professional associations who got the word out and started raising a fuss. Another young historian got a petition going. A flurry of concerned letters started reaching Guy Berthiaume, head of Library and Archives Canada.
We should be thankful that Berthiaume was at the helm of the institution at this juncture. A former head of the Archives nationales du Québec and a historian by training, he was uniquely sensitive to this issue. LAC agreed to take on the responsibility for the database. It took several months for the French to turn over the data, and for the good folks at LAC to fit it into a new structure, but now it's done. As of early September, Archives Canada-France has risen from its ashes, with a new interface and under a new name: Archives de la Nouvelle-France. Check it out here
LAC has indicated that the interface is a temporary one, and that it will eventually (soon?) be improved upon. Improvement, indeed, is needed. As my colleague Joseph Gagné has noted on his blog
, it's not possible to organise the research results chronologically (something that the old database allowed), and the list of results gives only the first portion of the title, but no glimpse of the contents which might facilitate navigation (the old database showed a useful sentence fragment); in the same vein, I would add that the results also ought to give the archival reference (as it did in the old). For someone who uses these archives extensively, these little features matter.
More problematic is the fact that a lot of material does not seem to have made it from the old database into the new. Or, at any rate, a lot of material is unreachable by means of the new search engine. Let's say I'm looking for inventory descriptions that mention a guy named "Des Ursins". Using "ursins" as keyword, the new Archives Canada-France database gives me 14 results. Using the same keyword in the LAC Archives Search database, I get 24. It quickly becomes apparent that some of the series that could be searched using the old database -- to wit the B, E, F1A series -- have yet to be properly reintegrated in the new. There may be others missing.
On a positive note, the image reader works much better than the old one, which was slow and clumsy.
Finally, I am also saddened, but not necessarily surprised, by the historical framing of the new portal. Its introduction recalls in a few triumphant paragraphs the birth of the old database, but says nothing of this latest, more regrettable chapter. Users learn that to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the French presence in North America back in 2004:
"France and Canada re-created their singular adventure and sparked new interest in their shared history by putting documents online reproduced in their entirety using the latest digitization technologies, and making them accessible to a broad public."
"With enthusiasm and determination that reflect the scope of the project, the Direction des Archives de France, Library and Archives Canada (LAC), Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec and the Canadian Embassy in Paris set up work teams, whose members ensured a constant and effective liaison between the two continents."
This is all true, of course, but it leaves unsaid the dramatic unravelling of this wonderful transatlantic partnership. By 2015, where was this foundational "enthusiasm and determination"? And the "constant and effective liaison"?. The Direction des Archives de France essentially dropped the ball, and LAC picked it up only when the user community began to voice its discontent. For all the popular enthusiasm that surrounds the anniversary of the arrival of the Régiment de Carignan-Salières, for example, or of Champlain's travels in Ontario, one is left with the distinct impression that the Canada-France ideal was, as far as political will is concerned, a passing fad of the early 2000s. And that makes me sad.
But perhaps it's just on a little hiatus.