Digitization of Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files

The digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) service files is underway and a substantial number of digitized files have been added to our website as part of the Government of Canada First World War commemoration activities. We will add new files every two weeks, as the CEF digitization initiative is a priority for us.

For statistics and information about this digitization project, please consult our monthly updates on the Discover blog.

The digitization of 640,000 Canadian Expeditionary Force personnel service files is underway. This project aims to ensure the long-term preservation of these unique and fragile records, and to provide ongoing access to high-quality digital copies of the entire collection of service files, anytime, and anywhere. To achieve this goal, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) will close portions of this collection as they undergo preparation, conservation, and digitization. LAC will no longer provide on-site consultation or photocopying of these files. Digital reprography will be available only for files not yet in process. Newly digitized files will be added to the  Soldiers of the First World War database every two weeks until the project is completed in 2016. Please check the database regularly for new additions. You can also consult the Library and Archives Canada Blog on the 15th of every month for project updates.

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.

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 and transported for digitization.

The digitized images will be associated to metadata (the keywords that allow users to search through an electronic database, such as the member’s given name, last name or regimental number). Batches of electronic files will be added to the Soldiers of the First World War every two weeks.

Once the paper files have been digitized, they will be stored permanently in climate-controlled vaults at the LAC Preservation Centre, in Gatineau, Quebec. Thereafter, there will be limited access to the original documents. To help preserve the fragile originals, we ask that researchers consult the online copies instead of the originals.

The Benefits of Digitizing Service Files

At the end of the project, expected in 2016, Canadians will have unprecedented access to this rich resource and will be able to research high-quality digital copies of the more than 640,000 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.