ONLINE HERITAGE EXPANSION IN CANADA
Canadians have warmed to the Internet very quickly as another method of effective communications. Since the birth of our country, Canadian governments and the private sector have invested great resources into tying the country together, first with the railroad, then with satellite-based telecommunications, and today with broadband networks. With the exception of Korea, 2 the level of penetration of broadband access to the Internet is higher in Canada than anywhere else in the world, including the United States. A Household Internet Use Survey 3 by Statistics Canada showed that in 2000, 51% of Canadian households had at least one Internet user. A more recent survey 4 showed an increase in home Internet use between 2000 and 2001 of 18%.
Internet use trends and user demographics are broadly similar in Canada to those in the United States: 5
- Internet use has become a mainstream activity in the North American lifestyle; the perception among the middle class is that not to have Internet access from the home is to be disadvantaged.
- Growth in Internet use is particularly prominent among the younger generation, but people from all age groups are going online in growing numbers.
- The demographic of users is no longer oriented towards males, with high education, incomes, and technical training, but is now much closer to the general population demographic.
- Users, particularly as they gain experience and confidence, are going online more often and for longer sessions; it is likely that television watching is being reduced to spend more time online, by both adults and children.
- While about 80% of users still have telephone line Internet connections, the rate of high speed connection (cable and telephone) is growing slowly but surely.
- The primary reason for people to start using the Internet is no longer to have e-mail, but to have quick and convenient access to information; searching for information is by far the predominant use of the Web. 6
- There is a growing perception of the Internet as a huge combination of encyclopedia-research library-archives-newspaper. The Internet as a source of entertainment is not currently its central role.
The World Wide Web is viewed as an important source of information by the vast majority of its users, and there is a growing willingness to trust that information. This is ironic considering that the amount of human knowledge to be found on the Web is still small and fragmentary, if compared to the contents of a good public library. 7 The Web is becoming the most highly democratized publishing tool in human history; in fact, the backbone of the Web is sites created by private individuals on a voluntary basis. This growing trust in the Web as a research tool makes it that much more essential for institutions with a solid knowledge base, such as museums, to contribute substantially to the development of accurate online information.
Canadian museums did not hurry online when the Web was young. The first two Canadian museum Web sites, back in 1994, were of the Ontario Science Centre and the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Despite these pioneering examples, the largest and best-resourced museums (either in Canada or elsewhere) did not populate the Web quickly. A Web initiative was more determined by an enthusiastic employee, with some computer literacy and self-taught in Web page development, willing to take on the extra workload as a minimally funded experiment, with the indulgence of museum management. In fact, in larger institutions where questions of funding and programming are addressed through formal planning processes, there was typically a large delay in venturing online.
It is barely a decade that the Web has existed, but it has evolved considerably in its technologies and in needed design and programming skills. Yet this has not placed it beyond the reach of small museums with small budgets. Compared to conventional hard-copy methods for disseminating information, online publishing calls for less expensive equipment, fewer specialty skills, a much smaller team, and lower distribution costs. The Web continues to present museums of all sizes with an opportunity to promote themselves internationally, and to achieve some educational goals, in a cost-effective fashion.
Today it is safe to say, especially given the attention from governments at national to local levels, that the majority of Canada’s 2,300 museums or heritage institutions have some kind of Web presence. 8 The degree of investment does vary considerably from museum to museum; even institutions run with voluntary labour often find that one of their volunteers can put up a museum page on a personal Web site. The Web offers more of a level playing-field than most other marketing tools; a comparable geographic reach could not be achieved by a printed brochure. While small museums may not be able to hire professionals to produce glossy Web sites with interactive features, surveys show that Websurfers are most interested in the quality of information on a site, and the ability to find information quickly. Where small museums embarking on a Web project need to focus their attention is on care in planning the structure of a site and how to navigate through it, given that they may have to start small and develop the site over the course of several years.
In Canada, the most substantial and professional-looking museum Web sites are those of provincial and national institutions. The Royal British Columbia Museum, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec, and the Nova Scotia Museum are just a few examples of human history museums with established and strong Web sites. 9 However, many of the sizable Web sites presenting Canada’s human heritage are not museum sites. They include other cultural institutions such as the National Library, which has created a “Digital Library of Canada” and the National Archives, which has (like the U.S. Library of Congress) created a collection of virtual exhibitions under the title “Canadian Memory” 10. Sites of government departments or agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, Parks Canada, and the Department of Indian Affairs incorporate some authoritative knowledge resources. 11 A number of non-governmental associations are also presenting historical materials online, such as the Canadian Heritage Gallery, Canadian History Portal, Canada History, Histor!ca, and Early Canadiana Online. 12
Some private sector projects have government financial support, because the federal government is an important player in developing the Internet in Canada. One of its earlier initiatives was SchoolNet, aimed at developing the infrastructure and teacher training so that almost all schools throughout Canada could take advantage of the educational dimension of the Web. SchoolNet also spawned a programme for decentralized content creation, through a funding programme, under the name Canada’s Digital Collections – probably the most extensive collection of online knowledge resources in Canada. 13
More recently the emphasis on expanding online government services has resulted in funding support for other initiatives, such as the Virtual Museum of Canada 14 which assists the development of museum online content. The VMC is also a portal for decentralized virtual exhibitions (and for content to be found at the VMC site itself). The development of such portals 15 is the first phase of what has been predicted by some colleagues as the next stage of museum presence online: the meta-museum, taking an integrative approach to the distributed resources of individual museums. 16 Other examples of this trend are: Images Canada, 17 providing single-window access to the distributed collections of various government and non-government cultural institutions; a collaboration between federal cultural agencies to develop an online ticketing and reservations system to serve the needs of all partners; and Canada Place and Culture Canada, 18 the Department of Canadian Heritage’s portals to Canadian culture.