Library and Archives Canada is in the process of digitizing all soldiers' records from the First World War, the most requested items in its collection.

And it's not easy work.

Sylvain Bélanger, director-general in the stewardship branch of Library and Archives Canada, said there are about 640,000, and within each of those folders there are numerous documents. He estimates that, in the end, about four million images will be scanned and digitized.

Sylvain Bélanger, Library and Archives Canada

Sylvain Bélanger, director-general in the stewardship branch of Library and Archives Canada, says about four million images will be scanned in the effort to digitize the files of First World War soldiers. (Mathieu Theriault/CBC)

"So that's a big effort for our team," Bélanger said, adding the project should take 12 to 18 months.

Each file must be prepared one at a time before the pages can be scanned. Staff remove metal clips and fasteners, while glue is removed from some pages.

And in some files, there are more than formal documents.

In one, staff found a piece of shrapnel. In another, an American social security card. Many have personal photographs, including one taken of a group of officers at a field hospital. The caption just reads "somewhere in France."

Bélanger says it brings these soldiers to life for the staff.

"Every time they go through the file, they find something different. Every soldier has got a history, has got something special related to him," he said.

Getting the collection online

Library and Archives Canada has been criticized in recent years for keeping too much of its collection locked away in vaults, making it difficult for the public to access. At one point, only two per cent of the entire collection was online. Now, four per cent of its material can be found with the click of a mouse.

A recent report from Auditor General Michael Ferguson was critical too, suggesting that the archives were not in touch with what Canadians want from the institution.

Library and Archives Canada

Just four per cent of Library and Archives Canada's collection has been digitized, a number the agency hopes to increase to 15 per cent. (Mathieu Theriault/CBC)

He said a disconnect happens when departments don't have a clear understanding of whether the services they are providing are meeting the needs of their clientele.

"When departments do not fully consider the on the ground impact of their activities, they're missing opportunities that they're hitting the mark for Canadians," Ferguson wrote.

Guy Berthiaume, who was named librarian and archivist of Canada six months ago, said he hopes to one day see 15 per cent of the collection digitized, but not much more than that.

"One-hundred per cent is not the goal. We're not going to go and digitize the phone book, all phone books in Canada. It doesn't make sense," he said.

Instead, Berthiaume would like to see more of the material in the vaults displayed in public exhibits across the country.

He points to why people continue to line up to see the Mona Lisa, even though they can Google the image easily.

"I'm not a psychologist. I can't explain it. But I know it when I feel it. It's a very different emotion when you're with the document than when you see it digitized," Berthiaume said.

Vancouver's chief librarian, Sandra Singh, is leading the digitization effort in her city.

She said Berthiaume's efforts are a step in the right direction.

"Fifteen per cent in the short timeline he's speaking about is pretty ambitious. I would hope over the long term to see even greater collections digitized and provided and made available to Canadians," Singh said.

Berthiaume is seeking the public's input on what should be digitized next. The public can vote on a Top 10 list that's on the website. There are also more public exhibits planned for 2015.

Singh can't wait to see more of what's in the vaults.

"I would suspect that in archives and libraries across the country there are boxes and boxes of collections that are just waiting to be opened, waiting to be described," she said. "Perhaps they'll be catalysts for the next great Canadian novel or the next really insightful piece of analysis of the Canadian story, and where we are and where we might be going."

Berthiaume agrees.

"We're still in the process of defining who we are. And if this institution can be felt as the place to go, to help people know themselves personally, through genealogy or globally through history, that would be a great undertaking," he said.