Digitization Grant: George Mercer Dawson

After a roller coaster of a year, our digitization lab is back at full capacity and they are busy! With a staff of 4 students working under lab supervisor Greg Houston, we are jumping back into the swing of things with a grant from the British Columbia History Digitization Program to digitize the George Mercer Dawson series. McGill Library and Archives is the first non-BC institution to be awarded this grant which aims to promote increased access to British Columbia’s historical resources by supporting digitization projects that will result in free online access to unique historical material. It is no wonder McGill is one of recipient institutions with this fascinating and detailed collection created by Sir John William Dawson’s eldest son.

A renowned geologist and surveyor, George Mercer Dawson dedicated his life to science, geology and the exploration of Canada. The series, which is part of the larger Dawson collection housed in the McGill archives, spans from 1971-1901 and primarily documents his land surveys of Northern BC. The value in this series crosses several disciplines; it contains scientifically detailed observations on mineral resources of northern British Columbia, as well as botany and geography. Researchers also benefit from Dawson’s personal correspondence and diary entries describing encounters with indigenous communities; particularly with the Haida People of Queen Charlotte’s Island, now Haida Gwaii. Dawson’s explorations provide the first written record of one of Canada’s most well known natural landscapes and earned him the status of namesake to the Northern BC town Dawson’s Creek.



In anticipation of beginning the digitization process, Archival & Rare Book Cataloguer, Anna Dysert, ensured the files containing George Mercer Dawson’s correspondence have item-level metadata for each letter including creator, correspondent and has placed access points to help researchers identify specific materials of interest. She has also enhanced and cleaned this metadata, migrating it from a legacy database into AtoM

The George Mercer Dawson series contains a diverse range of often fragile material which our digitization lab is well equipped to handle. Among other things the series includes 374 pencil sketches, sepias and watercolors of landscapes produced during exploratory trips in BC from, 16 lecture and laboratory notebooks, 10 cm of poetry, 22 letters from various family members.

We estimate approximately: 13,211 loose manuscript pages, 86 bound notebooks and diaries (6,100 pages). We will be using two different scanners because of the different requirements for the types of content to be digitized. Manuscripts require a book scanner with a V shaped cradle which can be used for fragile material, for this we will use the Cobra Book2Net scanner. All other material is in loose sheet format and is fragile, therefore will be scanned on the SupraScan Quartz A1 HD. This scanner moves across a fixed table and provides automatic calibration, focus, real time image quality control and batch processing. The output of both scanners is uncompressed TIFF which are then converted to PDF access files. Image enhancements will be made as needed before the digital object is then linked to the pre-existing record in AtoM. This has been a frequently consulted resource by experts across Canada and we are thrilled to be overcoming physical barriers and making this valuable resource openly accessible online.


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