Welcome to islandnewspapers.ca! The project partners are delighted to offer a fully-searchable online archive of PEI's main newspaper of record, The Guardian, from 1890 to 1957. We look forward to adding more content in the future; please see The Road Ahead section below for more information on our future plans (and how you can help).
There are few places where newspapers play so large and important a role as on Prince Edward Island: while book publishing and other periodicals have struggled to survive in the province's small marketplace, newspapers have thrived, even into the 21st Century. At one point in the mid-1890s, Prince Edward Island, which at that time had a largely rural, cash-poor population of barely 100,000, was supporting at least a dozen newspapers, a total matching London, England, then a city of nearly 5 million people. Even now, in an era when newspapers the world over are struggling to compete with "free" Internet content, Island papers boast enviable circulation figures.
Some of the significance and vitality of newspapers in Island culture is likely rooted in the close ties originally many papers established in their early years to one (or both) of the province's two most important social institutions, churches and political parties. The Guardian, for example, was the successor to a religious paper, The Protestant Union, and would later venture into party politics, actively supporting the Conservative Party from the 1910s through to the 1940s. Even in the absence of explicit religious or political affiliations, however, the Island's small, close-knit society allowed newspapers to engage closely with their readers' interests and concerns, and strong editorial positions would often be staked out on important provincial issues (temperance being a notable example).
Other factors helped make the Island fertile soil for newspapers. The importance accorded education in PEI -- it was the first jurisdiction in North America to establish public schools -- encouraged an engaged and active readership. In the decades when travel to and from the mainland and between Island communities was often difficult, especially in winter and early spring, newspapers also helped Islanders stay connected with each other and with the wider world. The relative lack of cash on hand in many rural PEI households also favoured the province's newspapers, since locally-produced print media could price itself competitively against material imported from off-Island. Furthermore, the comparatively late advent of electrification in many areas of rural PEI prolonged newspapers' "head-start" advantage over radio and television.
In addition to their exceptional influence and reach, newspapers' importance for students of Island history -- be they professional academics, independent scholars, or casual "browsers" -- is heightened by the fact that other PEI institutions did not necessarily develop with the same speed and strength. The Island had no provincial archives until the 1960s, for example, and no "Hansard" transcript of Legislative proceedings until the 1990s. Even now, the province remains without an official depository library for Island print publications, though the Confederation Centre Public Library and UPEI Robertson Library have endeavoured to fulfil that role with their "PEI Collections" in recent decades. In this context, maintaining some sort of public record of Island life was, for many years, a haphazard and incomplete affair, and much of the work has often fallen to the newspapers; even their contents would not have survived for posterity without the microfilming efforts of the Canadian Library Association and the Provincial Archives, which began in earnest in the 1960s and 1970s, and which managed to salvage at least parts of the Island's newspaper canon dating back to the late 1700s.
Microfilm, though a robust and proven technology, is notoriously user-unfriendly, and libraries and archives face the further worry that the equipment needed to view microfilm and fiche is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain, as companies dedicated to the manufacture and service of microform and service die out in the Digital Age. Digitization, done to a standard which will generate high-quality and long-lasting page images, and link these to searchable Optical Character Recognition (OCR) full-text, is obviously imperative for the preservation and expansion of access to the rich and vital lode of historical information contained in Island newspapers, but the work will be expensive and time-consuming. The islandnewspapers.ca project partners will soon be opening part of this site as a fund-raising and idea-generating platform to help move this initiative forward.