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Volume 2, Number 1, January-February 2006

Oral History: Canada's Past as Told by Canadians


For thousands of years, stories have been told and passed down from one generation to the next. In cases where history has not been recorded, stories have been the primary method of keeping history alive.

While the concept of oral history is not new, it has only recently gained attention and credibility within archival circles that have, in the past, relied heavily on the written word. Recognizing the value of oral traditions, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has adopted this methodology, showcasing it in several of its Web exhibitions.

One such example is Project Naming. It began in the spring of 2001 with the goal to record information about the Inuit people in the vast photographic collections held by LAC. Mostly recorded by explorers and other outsiders, the information about these people in the photographs was often incorrect or non-existent. Using laptop computers to show the digitized images, Inuit youth and Elders worked together to identify the people and the places. Their hard work and dedication paid off: new information was added to the searchable database and was made available when the website was launched in the fall of 2004. As a result, a collection of photographs of formerly unknown Inuit people is now a series of images of named individuals, each with their own story.

Phase two of Project Naming began in the fall of 2005 when Elders Louis Uttak and Abraham Ulayuruluk joined us from Igloolik for two weeks to research and identify a new selection of photographs. Through their efforts and those of our partner, the Nunavut Sivuniksavut Training Program, LAC will further expand the website and the photo collections it features.

Currently, LAC is working on two new Web exhibitions called First Hand Histories and Faces of War. Both projects will use oral history to enrich and provide context to the audio collections from the First World War and the photographic collections from the Second World War. Clients will have the opportunity to share their knowledge and stories of the images, which highlight some of the men and women who participated in the Second World War.

In presenting the oral histories of Canadians, LAC preserves individual experiences and provides greater access to Canada's cultural history. Think of the stories in your family and what a loss it would be for those to disappear, never having been recorded.

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