UVic uncovers empire’s correspondence

Old mainframe yields up valuable history files before becoming history itself

By Maria Lironi

Holmes holding printed transcripts of the Colonial Despatches

More than 7,000 digital files—transcriptions of all the government documents that passed between Victoria and London in the colonial period—are now available for viewing, thanks to staff at University Systems, the library, the Humanities Computing and Media Centre and the Department of History.

As University Systems staff prepared to shut down UVic’s last IBM mainframe computer—a technology workhorse that housed all research applications since the late 1960s—they alerted the history department about the existence of some important digital files.

The files contained the transcription from difficult-to-read archival documents of all the Vancouver Island and British Columbia Colonial Despatches—a massive project completed by Professor Emeritus James Hendrickson in the 1980s.

The Colonial Despatches (the 19th-century spelling of dispatches) are the most authoritative documentary source available for the gold rush, Aboriginal relations and the colonial period in BC. They were a special kind of correspondence—communications between the governor of a colony and the Colonial Office in London. Governors were required to report on everything of importance that happened in their colony, and the despatches included related correspondence, maps, legislation and clippings.

Thanks to funding from the Ike Barber Centre (UBC Libraries) and UVic Libraries, Martin Holmes (Humanities Computing and Media Centre) was able to re-encode Hendrickson’s transcriptions of the 1858 despatches—which were originally encoded in the pre-Internet era—to current international standards. Now, for the first time, these are being made available on a publicly accessible website (http://bcgenesis.uvic.ca). Additional funding is needed to make all of the 1846–71 despatches available.

“The Colonial Despatches paint a compelling picture of the colonial period of BC,” says UVic history professor John Lutz. “As we celebrate BC’s 150th birthday, the digital publication of the despatches is timely. The despatches also will be a great source for historians. They provide a valuable resource for land title negotiation, and will be a useful teaching tool.”

UVic’s IBM mainframe will be shut off early next year. All research and administrative applications were once housed on just one of these computers. But now newer, faster facilities are in place. Project Nova will signal the end of the old era by merging the mainframe’s remaining administrative applications into a bank of new servers.

UVic will find a suitable retirement home for the mainframe, including as a possible museum piece, but meanwhile there are still a few residual applications on the old mainframe. If you are running one of these and Project Nova is not already replacing it, contact helpdesk@uvic.ca or 250-721-7687.

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