This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2016

Canada’s local libraries must be digitized

While other countries work to digitize virtually all of their books and notable articles, Canada has barely scratched the surface

Michael Geist

ThisMagazine50_coverLores-minFor our special 50th anniversary issue, Canada’s brightest, boldest, and most rebellious thinkers, doers, and creators share their best big ideas. Through ideas macro and micro, radical and everyday, we present 50 essays, think pieces, and calls to action. Picture: plans for sustainable food systems, radical legislation, revolutionary health care, a greener planet, Indigenous self-government, vibrant cities, safe spaces, peaceful collaboration, and more—we encouraged our writers to dream big, to hope, and to courageously share their ideas and wish lists for our collective better future. Here’s to another 50 years!

Imagine going to your local library in search of Canadian books. You wander through the stacks but are surprised to find most shelves barren with the exception of books that are more than 100 years old. This sounds more like an abandoned library than one serving its patrons, yet it’s roughly what Canada’s digitization efforts have looked like. While other countries work to digitize virtually all of their books and notable articles, Canada has barely scratched the surface.

Financial and legal constraints are typically identified as two of the biggest barriers to ensuring universal digital access to Canadian heritage. Major digitization initiatives are certainly costly, but experience elsewhere shows that a government-led initiative that brings together public and private resources is possible with the right champion.

Digitization initiatives in other countries show that the legal challenges are frequently overstated. American courts have ruled that massive digitization programs such as Google’s qualify as fair use. Canadian law features fair dealing, but a similar approach could be adopted. The Supreme Court of Canada’s interpretation of the law lends itself to a digitization program in which all Canadian works are converted into digital format for research, study, and education.

All public domain works—which could reasonably be estimated to include anything published before 1940—could be made immediately accessible in full text. Moreover, the government could launch a crowdsourcing initiative where Canadians identify additional public domain works of authors who died more than 50 years ago. This would include many books published in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. For the remaining works, fair dealing would permit a portion of the work be made available without the need for further permission. For full text, authors could be given the opportunity to specify how, if at all, their works should be accessible.

With Canada set to celebrate its 150th birthday, now is the ideal time to give ourselves a birthday gift that will keep giving for years to come. A national digitization strategy is long overdue and starts with a government committed to a bold vision of making Canada’s heritage digitally accessible to all by creating a national digital library with everything.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. Visit

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