Recently the URL of the Labour History in New Brunswick project changed from http://www.lhtnb.ca to https://archives.gnb.ca/lhtnb/. Please adjust your bookmarks accordingly.
By David Frank
In a recent post Andrea Eidinger and Stephanie Pettigrew discussed the problem of maintaining legacies in the age of digital history. The title of their discussion was disconcertingly ominous: “Land of the Lost: Digital Projects and Longevity”. Links fail. Websites disappear. Languages change. Projects run out of money. Programmes go obsolete. Servers leave you behind. There are a surprising number of breakdowns on the information highway.
Spoiler alert here. The warning is that this story has a satisfactory ending.
As Andrea and Stephanie pointed out, there can be solutions. The case in point here is the website for a collaborative project on labour and working-class history in New Brunswick. It was one of the Community-University Research Alliances funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The project was active from 2005 to 2011 and involved colleagues at the two provincial universities and ten (later twelve) heritage institutions and labour organizations in the province.
From the outset, the website was one of our major undertakings, and it had some success in promoting interest in the field, both for specialists and also for the wider public. At the peak of usage, the site was receiving as many as 200,000 visits per month. Reviews of the project did not fail to mention the website as a significant achievement.
There is no need here to describe the site in any detail. It has survived beyond the formal completion of the project, and you can now make visits at its new home location.
That’s the good news, and thereby hangs a tale. The survival of the site depended on overcoming problems that loomed up in the last years of the project’s formal operation. The first obstacle appeared unexpectedly when the university whose server was hosting the site announced that they would no longer be able to support sites such as ours. The reason for this was that their site was being completely overhauled and they would not continue to use the same mark-up language they had used for many years. The option of rebuilding the site from the bottom up was not practical, nor affordable. Fortunately, there was plenty of notice of the change and we were able to transfer the website to one of the major commercial service providers in the province. There was no choice in this, as it was actually the only available service capable of meeting our needs. Meanwhile, our project funding was coming to a close, and that presented another problem. There would be monthly fees to pay. The two universities came up with short-term funding to bridge a transition. But a transition to what?
This is where one of our partner institutions came to the rescue. The Provincial Archives of New Brunswick was always an active participant in the project. One of our first achievements was to arrange for the long overdue transfer of the records of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour to the archives, where they now constitute MC1817. Following completion of the project, we also deposited our research files and other records at the PANB as MC3477. In both cases, not all the records were traditional paper documents. The NBFL collection included a substantial set of recorded proceedings of Federation annual conventions, back to the 1960s. And a major element in the project collection consisted of recorded interviews (with transcriptions) with labour activists that were conducted over the course of the project.
In this context, the Archives responded favourably to the idea that we might also deposit our website with them. From the beginning of the discussion, this meant more than copying the site onto storage media and holding it for some future use. We still wanted to ensure that the website remained available to users. That suited the Archives too. As a result, our site is now one of the featured Exhibits and Education Tools available on the PANB website:
The transfer took time. This past summer the Associates of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick generously provided funding for a University of New Brunswick student, Michael Killam, to work on the migration of the site under the supervision of Dana King, the IT developer assigned to the PANB. The site can still be easily navigated and searched internally, as originally designed by our colleague Nelson Ouellet at the Université de Moncton. However, there has been a price to pay in the loss of interactivity, and it is now essentially a static or archived site. Also, we could not take responsibility for the external links that are mentioned on the site, some of which are no longer functioning.
And, as noted in our headline above, there was a change in the site url. You are encouraged to update your links and bookmarks in order to continue to have easy access. In the meanwhile, a redirect message is posted at the old location and will be there for the next two months. Moreover, because the new url still contains our bilingual acronym, LHTNB (translated as Labour History in New Brunswick / Histoire du travail au Nouveau-Brunswick), a Google search should bring you to the updated versions of our Welcome and Bienvenue pages.
Moreover, the essentials are still there: our five major themes, with features and resources for each of them: Provincial Solidarities; Le travail en Acadie; Contested Territory: Transformation of the Woods; Women’s Work: Focus on Caring; Labour Landmarks. Beyond this, there are resources such as a searchable database of officers of the Federation of Labour from its beginnings in 1913 and several topical blog contributions, often written by students. After some discussion, we decided to retain the Recent News feature, which functions as a log of our activities from 2005 through to 2011, including reports on public events such as workshops and conferences and the annual Heritage Fairs for the schools. There are also links to various publications produced by project members, many of which can be easily downloaded from links on the site.
All of the content is presented in both official languages of the province, as on the original site, and it is possible to toggle back and forth easily between languages on almost any page. The only exception is on the pages devoted to Lesson Plans and the Modules pédagogiques. The Modules were developed in close collaboration with our partners at the Association des enseignantes et enseignants francophones du Nouveau-Brunswick and are directly aligned with curriculum content and goals at every level of the French-language school system.
In a discussion of the project at meetings of the Canadian Historical Association a few years ago, I made a distinction between the (undoubtedly overlapping) phases of accumulation, production and circulation in historical work. This may still be a useful rubric. One lesson to take away from the story of our website, apart from the virtues of patience and persistence, is the value of engaging public institutions in the preservation of achievements in the circulation phase.
The accumulated records in storage in the archives buildings, paper, audio or digital, remain the indispensable raw source material for the production of historical work. And, despite innovations, most research results are still circulated in the traditional material shape of books, articles, reports and theses. But in the case of our website, we also have an example of how the presentation of research results in the sphere of online circulation can be maintained well beyond the life of the original project.
David Frank was director of the Labour History in New Brunswick project. He is a professor emeritus in Canadian history at the University of New Brunswick.