Read all about it, 270-year-old N.B. newspapers go digital

An issue printed on wrapping paper, warnings about ships in Saint John harbour carrying disease and reports about the prevalence of slavery in Canada —these are just some of the things a team from the University of Toronto has discovered while digitizing early newspapers in Canada, including some from New Brunswick.

The project, Early Modern Canadian Newspapers Online, is digitizing around 30 newspapers from the years 1752 to 1810. The term early modern refers to the centuries between the late middle ages and the age of revolutions. 

The papers from New Brunswick included in the project are:

  • The Royal St. John Gazette and the Nova Scotia Intelligencer, 1783 -1784,
  • The Royal Gazette and the St. John Advertiser, 1785-1814,
  • The Saint-John Gazette and the Weekly Advertiser, 1786-1799,
  • The Saint John Gazette, 1803-1807,
  • The Time, or True Briton, 1808-1810.

Several of these titles were suggested by the University of New Brunswick, which had already been digitizing the publications for its own collection. 

The front page of The Times; or True Briton from August 24, 1809. One of the Saint John newspapers UNB provided to the team from U of T. (Contributed by Sébastien Drouin)

“We look at this as being some shared scholarship,” said James MacKenzie, the acting associate dean of UNB Libraries.

UNB’s collection covers a much broader time period, while the U of T project is creating a database focused on early modern papers from around the country. 

“We both offer a perspective on New Brunswick news and New Brunswick history,” MacKenzie said. 

A valuable resource

Sébastien Drouin, the associate professor leading the U of T project, said one of the more troubling aspects of their work was the prevalence of material related to slavery in the newspapers.

“We realized, actually, like, every two pages, you turn the pages, and you see ads for people for sale,” Drouin said. “Or the other type of ad is runaway slaves.”

Drouin said digitizing these ads benefits scholars looking beyond the mainstream narrative of Canadian history, as well as the public, who may not have access to scholarly materials. 

Sébastien Drouin, associate professor at the University of Toronto is the project’s leader. He says the digitization will make searching for archival information much easier. (Contributed by Sébastien Drouin)

“I think those documents are critical for understanding our own history,” he said. Having them available online makes them more accessible. 

“It’s not like a cryptic document that just a few scholars know about.”

Loyalists in flight

Many of the people publishing and reading these publications would have fled to what is now New Brunswick to remain under British rule after the American revolution, said Drouin. 

After lugging heavy equipment up north to produce newspapers, publishers faced a new challenge: finding material to print on. 

“Prior to the 19th century, the paper was not made out of wood pulp. It was made out of cloth,” Drouin said. “So they would, in Saint John actually, some of these printers would sometimes offer books in exchange for clean linen, for instance.”

He remembers coming across one issue of the Saint John Gazette from 1797 that had to be printed on wrapping paper because the printers couldn’t source a suitable alternative.

A painting titled, View of St. John N.B., from 1809. Done in watercolour over pencil by an unknown artist, the image is a glimpse at the Saint John chronicled in the newspapers Drouin and his team are digitizing. (Library and Archives Canada/Watercolour collection/e010797006)

Sapphire Davis, a fifth-year student at U of T who worked on the project, recalls seeing an article in a Maritime paper that reminded her of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An article published in Saint John on Sept. 21, 1798 reads, “A law for the more effectual guarding against the introduction of infectious distemper into the city of Saint John.”

The law forbade people from boarding ships that had arrived from areas with “yellow fever, putrid billious fever or other contagious distemper whatsoever,” according to the article. 

“I just thought it was really interesting. Like, the parallels [between] 1798 and then 2020,” Davis said. 

Third-year student Laura Harrison was flipping through archived papers and found an article from New Brunswick about the North American Indian Institution, which was republished in an 1814 edition of the Quebec Mercury. 

The institution’s goal was “an attachment and friendship of those people, alike beneficial to them, as to the interests of the British Empire,” the article states. 

Despite the article falling a few years outside the group’s targeted time frame of 1752 to 1810, she thought it contained valuable insights. 

“You have these ideas of assimilation through education,” Harrison said.

The article predates residential schools, “But it definitely shows you kind of the general consensus of how Indigenous populations were regarded by these European settlers in Canada.”

Making research easier

The five publications included from New Brunswick are anglophone. Drouin said he believes francophone papers didn’t print in the province until the mid 19th century.

One of the benefits of the project, said Drouin, is that it makes archival information accessible in a 21st-century way. 

Prior to digitization efforts, archived papers would usually be accessible in libraries on microfilm, requiring specialized machinery to read. 

Using a microfilm reader, like this one at UNB, is a much more difficult and time-consuming way to conduct research. (Contributed by Mike Meade)

Mike Meade, the digital imaging coordinator at UNB’s Centre for Digital Scholarship, said using microfilm for research can be like “looking for a needle in a haystack.” 

Digitized documents allow more time for research.

“It’s keyword searchable, so you could just search for your subject and bring up the results. And that just is so completely time saving.”

UNB’s growing collection of digital papers is available for anyone to access online, with many searchable issues. Drouin hopes their searchable database will launch in 2023.

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