Preserving 19th-Century British Library Newspapers

Article excerpt

There's a saying in the U.K. that yesterday's newspapers are only good for wrapping fish and chips at High Street fast-food outlets. But the ever-increasing amount of newspaper archive digitization programs would suggest otherwise.

Gale International's The Times Digital Archive, 1785-1985, has offered complete pages and articles from The (London) Times since 2003. The Guardian released a complete digital collection of the Guardian and Observer in November 2007, and in mid-October 2007, The British Library (BL) launched an online collection of 1 million pages of 46 newspapers from the 19th century.

Digitized News Titles From the 1800s

The British Library Newspapers website was created in partnership with Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, with funding provided by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). Free access will be provided to the database within the BL building and to all the U.K.'s Further and Higher Education communities. Fee-based services will be launched for the general public sometime in 2008.

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At the official launch of the digitization project in the BL's London headquarters, BL chairman Colin Lucas said the newspaper collection fulfills two of the BL's major missions: enhancing the user experience and expanding the digital environment. He explained that the BL currently holds more than 30,000 news titles dating from the 1840s that have been collected by legal deposit. They amount to 20 miles of shelving that have only been available at a remote location in Colindale in northwest London until now.

Ron Cooke, JISC chair, described some of the challenges in creating the collection. First, a candidate list of titles was created, representing the entire U.K. From this list, experts selected the 46 titles to receive cover-to-cover scanning of their entire runs. Scanning newspapers is even more difficult than scanning old books because of the range of paper sizes, the amount of text in irregular column format, variable typefaces, and extremely fragile paper stock. Cooke called the process a "digitisation nightmare."

During the 1800s, there was an explosion in the amount of press. Even the regional newspapers were sophisticated, reporting on international as well as national and local news. London alone had dozen newspapers. Among the titles chosen for digitization were the Belfast News Letter, Glasgow Herald, Liverpool Mercury, and North Wales Chronicle as well as specialist titles such as the Illustrated Police News. …