Dr. Lissa Paul, a Brock University professor, is in the midst of helping the preservation of a historical Barbadian newspaper in an effort to preserve Caribbean history and culture. The bi-weekly newspaper, called the Barbados Mercury Gazette, was published between 1783 and 1839. While paper copies are stored and sealed within the Barbados Archive Department, the microfilms of the documents are disintegrating at an astonishing rate, making the Gazette unavailable for scholars.
Paul had previously used copies of the Gazette in her research on Eliza Fenwick (1766-1840), an English author who had run a school in Niagara-on-the-Lake after spending numerous years teaching in a similar school in Bridgetown, Barbados (1814-1822).
“When I was trying to track Eliza’s time in Barbados between 1814 and 1822 when she left, I started doing research initially in the Barbados Historical Society and then it was suggested to me that I look at the Barbados Mercury Gazette,” Paul says about her initial research. “My first use of it was in Barbados in the library and even then the microfilm copies were poor.”
Additionally, Paul also noted how difficult it was outside of the Barbados Historical Society to gain access to the microfilms, first explaining the process of how to gain access to the documents through the library by requesting the item be sent over — a process that she had tried to follow during her research in 2012.
“I kept writing these requests and I kept getting rejected,” Paul says, “that’s when I found out that the actual microfilm medium on which they were produced, or reproduced, was diazo and not silver halide, and diazo, as it turns out, is a medium that is supposed to be for temporary. [sic] It’s not supposed to be for preservation medium.”
“Every time I subsequently used the microfilm copies both in either London or in Bridgetown, cause those are pretty much the only places where supposedly complete sets were, they were getting more and more difficult to use,” she explains. “I could actually see it disintegrating in real time.”
The idea of the project is to digitize the already existing microfilms, so that scholars can not only have the opportunity to access the documents but also navigate through them without having to scan through each page individually. This project itself ranges across a multinational scale due in large part to the number of people who have a hand in the process, from archivists to the technology responsible for the digitizing process — a technology that Barbados does not currently have.
The team consists of Ingrid Thompson, chief archivist of the Barbados Archive Department, archivist Amalia Levi, as well as Laurie Taylor, a digital librarian of the Digital Library of the Caribbean based at the University of Florida.
Paul’s role within the project has been primarily working on the application process for grants, providing scholarly rationale for the team to successfully apply for a grant from the British Library Endangered Archives Program.
Her desire to do so has been through an interest in keeping documents like the Gazette available to scholars due to the significance these documents play in forming scholarly discourse.
“Especially in digitized versions, you very quickly realize that you can read against the grain,” Paul explains about the importance of the documents and the relevance of resistance within them. “So what you’re reading sometimes is what looks like white people who absolutely don’t understand what’s happening; from their position they’re treating their slaves nicely so they can’t figure out what the problem is. What you realize is that you’re seeing ways in which enslaved people have developed strategies of resistance.”
Paul first expressed her interest and concern about the Gazette in Fall of 2016 during a presentation in Barbados at Cave Hall, University of West Indies. It was through this presentation that she was able to help find stakeholders who held a similar interest in the preservation of the Gazette. The first application for the grant was then sent out in November of 2016, being approved over the summer. The final approval was given in early October of this year.
“I’m a senior academic so I’ve spent a lot of time working on different kinds of projects, and sometimes they work really well and sometimes they don’t,” Paul says. “This is one of the ones that does.”
The grant of more than $45,000 will be used to digitize the existing microfilms so that scholars may continue to have access to the documents.