University of Calgary
UofC Navigation

New Arctic and Northern Studies digital collection

Digitization of Arctic Institute collection brings history to life through tales of northern exploration in the 1800s and early 1900s
Regina Landwehr, left, associate archivist with Libraries and Cultural Resources, and Rob Alexander, right, digitization and repository services, worked with Shannon Vossepoel, program manager from the Arctic Institute of North America, to digitize the collection.

Photo by Riley Brandt

In March 1836, the doomed Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, wrote to a friend that he had turned down an appointment as the lieutenant-governor of Antigua.

“I fancied the appointment to be little better than that of a 1’ Lt. (first lieutenant) and that it was not a desirable one for me to accept,” Franklin writes in a letter held by Archives and Special Collections (ASC) at the University of Calgary. “The salary was insufficient for the support of the station with anything like propriety . . . I declined the appointment on the ground of not considering the situation as quite such a one as the kind regard of the public towards my former services, and my station in Society as well as rank . . .”

Perhaps, if Franklin had accepted this position he may have lived to a ripe old age. Instead, he died—along with the 134 crew from the two ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror—during the ill-fated Franklin expedition, which set out from England in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage.

The disappearance of one of England’s great mariners launched a massive search that continued into modern times with the discovery of the Erebus in 2014 and of Terror last summer.

Franklin’s letter is one of 24 letters he wrote that are held by Archives and Special Collections on behalf of the UCalgary-based Arctic Institute of North America (AINA).
It is now available online as part of the Arctic and Northern Studies digital collection, which is hosted by Libraries and Cultural Resources.

Along with Franklin’s letters and two letters written by his wife, Lady Jane Franklin, the collection contains materials such as maps, manuscripts, photographs, sketches and lithographs that relate to Arctic exploration in the 1800s and early 1900s. One of the maps dates as far back as 1595. A physical exhibition of the materials, curated by associate archivist Regina Landwehr, is on display in the ASC foyer on the fifth floor of the Taylor Family Digital Library until the end of February 2017.

The physical materials were either photographed or scanned and then uploaded to the Library and Cultural Resources digital collection with corresponding metadata and transcripts.

Landwehr says she chose material to feature in both the digital collection and the physical exhibition that would be of broad interest and offer significant research value and that was also not already easily discoverable or accessible.

“There was a need to make this library collection more discoverable and to tie this in with the university’s focus on advancing research and scholarship, so it was a good opportunity with the discovery of Franklin’s ship, the Terror, and the publicity that it is receiving,” she says.

“The physical exhibit and the digital exhibit go hand in hand. The parts that are digitized you can actually look at in the display cases right away without having to make an appointment to have it retrieved. In terms of what I accepted and why, I chose very rare material.”

Shannon Vossepoel, AINA’s manager of research data and information services, says this recently digitized collection, prepared by Digitization and Repository Services, gives Arctic researchers and enthusiasts the opportunity to explore materials previously inaccessible outside the university.

“A lot of these items are fragile; they’re rare and they’re not seen in many places. And with a lot of these rare, unique and fragile items, people would have to travel to the University of Calgary specifically to look at them because it’s too difficult for us to send them out,” says Vossepoel.

“Now that they are digitized, people around the world can benefit from the items that we have in this collection and use it for scholarship and educational purposes.”

And that, says Mike Moloney, an AINA post-doctoral fellow, opens the door for interesting projects and questions.

“Having it available digitally expedites research,” he says. “People can also be braver in selecting the topics they might choose knowing that digitized resources are available.”

It also brings history to life, he says. It’s one thing to read about Franklin; it’s another thing altogether to read a letter written and signed by him in his own hand.

“There’s this connection that gets made when you read a letter that is in the hand of the person who wrote it, rather than just reading a transcript,” Moloney explains. “When you read the original Lady Franklin letter, you have a much different experience of the past. You see a more human connection, so it brings a sense of humanity to what happened there and what happened to the Franklin crew and all the people left behind at home.”

The originals, many of which contain previously unpublished and inaccessible sets of data dating back a century or more, are held by Archives and Special Collections on behalf of AINA.

See the full UToday story for a slide show of highlights from the collection.

“Once you start talking about datasets that are that long, you can start talking about datasets that are more statistically relevant than you could previously or looking at trends that are much longer or global in scale. It’s preserving the past but it also opens us up to a scale of data that is not normally available,” says Moloney.

Arctic and Northern Studies is an area of focus within the University of Calgary’s research themes in the Strategic Research Plan. In support of this, AINA and the University of Calgary Press co-publish the series Northern Lights, a collection of scholarly publications examining various aspects of the North including natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities.