Digitization of Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files

The digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) files is underway and a substantial number will be available on our website by the end of the summer as part of the Government of Canada First World War commemoration initiative. Additional files will be available in the fall and winter months as the CEF digitization initiative is a priority for us.

More than 600,000 men and women were part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) as soldiers, nurses and chaplains serving their country during the First World War, between 1914 and 1918. As part of its commitment to commemorate the centennial of their contributions to this conflict, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has undertaken a vast digitization project of all their service files to provide unprecedented access for Canadians and to ensure the long-term preservation of these historically important documents for future generations.

Preserving our national heritage

Transferred to LAC about 20 years ago, CEF service files are LAC’s most heavily consulted collection, amounting to about 3,300 requests each year. These are unique and fragile paper documents that are nearly a century old. As the Library and Archives of Canada Act mandates LAC “to preserve the documentary heritage of Canada for the benefit of present and future generations,” we are taking action to protect these documents. This is why we are undertaking the digitization of all CEF service files. Preservation is key as, once these files are lost, they are lost forever.

The Digitization Project

LAC, with the support of Public Works and Government Services Canada, will undertake the digitization of about 640,000 service files of members of the CEF (some members having two or more files in their name due to changes in their status) to complement the more than 620,000 attestation papers and the approximately 13,500 service files already available on LAC’s Soldiers of the First World War Web page.

As of March, 2014, LAC will be required to temporarily close portions of this collection. To allow us to perform a number of complex and delicate tasks to ensure the digitization of the collection, the files will be digitized alphabetically by CEF members’ last names. The first quarter, beginning with the letter A through D, will be closed as of March 2014 and will be available on-line as of Summer 2014.

While 75% of the collections will always be open, LAC will not be able to accept requests to consult documents in person, nor take orders for copies for a period of up to 4 months on the portion of the collection being digitized.

The first of the key steps to digitization involves a review of each file for its content, as some include objects such as badges or mementos. Service files may contain documents as varied as casualty or medal forms, pay books, passports, and, in some cases, personal photos and correspondence. Items that cannot be scanned will be retrieved, photographed, and placed aside so they can be reintegrated with the proper file before final storage. Staples and bindings, such as glue, must be carefully removed from each sheet of paper before being boxed alphabetically and transported for scanning at a minimum of 300 dots per inch (dpi), depending on the amount of details in the document, at a one to one ratio.

Once digitized, images will be associated to metadata (the keywords that allow users to search through an electronic databank, such as the member’s given name, last name or regimental number). The images will be compressed to a lower resolution so that searches on the Web can be performed faster, and uploaded to the CEF databank. Batches of electronic files will be made available as they are ready, with the first set expected to be added to the Soldiers of the First World War section in 2014.

After digitization, the paper files will be re-boxed according to new standards designed to ensure their long-term conservation, and stored in LAC’s state-of-the-art preservation facilities in Gatineau. Thereafter, there will be limited access to the original documents.

The Benefits of Digitizing Service Files

At the end of the project, expected in 2015, Canadians will have unprecedented access to this rich resource and will be able to research high-quality digital copies of the more than 650,000 service files for free anytime and anywhere. Each file contains, on average, 49 images, for a total of over 32,000,000 images or almost 617 terabytes of scanned information.

Canadians will have easy access online and will no longer be required to pay the reprography fee currently in place, which averages $20.00 per order.

Once digitized, this significant collection will be permanently stored, thus ensuring its preservation for future generations.