ICT: The House is in bits

May 4, 2007

More than 300 years' of parliamentary papers are now available online.

Becky McCall reports

Until March this year, the daily parliamentary reports, Bills and Acts that document the loss of Britain's American colonies, the birth of the Industrial Revolution and the scandal-ridden tenure of Britain's first Prime Minister remained hidden within the fragile pages of the country's most precious archives. But now documentation relating to key events in British history has been digitised as part of a £22 million project covering British official publications between 1688 and 1995, which is being made available to universities and colleges around the country.

In 2003, the Joint Information Systems Committee, which oversees information technology for UK higher education and research, launched a six-year programme to digitise a wealth of documents from the 16th century through to the present day. Known as Bopcris (British Official Publications Collaborative Reader Information Service), the project's first phase is now complete and encompasses six projects, including the digitisation of parliamentary papers, archival sound recordings and Newsfilm Online (see box). A second phase of 16 ambitious projects was launched last January.

Dicky Otlet is communications manager for the digitisation programme. He points out that the programme unlocks the doors to a wealth of British heritage. "Before the programme, researchers would have to seek permission from various individual institutions to access materials. We've digitised and catalogued it all, so they can search under any term they like. And unlike previous digitisation projects, today's educational institutions have the online infrastructure to support the digital archive," he explains.

The project is aimed at creating a corpus of digitised material for use by UK further and higher education. Unlike paper archives, digitisation allows for cross-linking between resources for faster and more in-depth research.

Web-based material is also free at the point of use.

Otlet says that the programme not only makes extensive archives available, but it is a research exercise in itself. "We are about to evaluate the phase one projects, each of which trialled a different type of digitisation process, so in hindsight we can provide advice to the many universities out there who are conducting their own smaller scale digitisation projects, whether on photos, storage, preservation or in other areas," he says.

Parliamentary papers have been a focus for the Jisc project. In 1834, a fire in the House of Commons destroyed much of the documentation held there. The fraction that was rescued is now housed by the British Library and Cambridge and Southampton universities. Altogether more than a million pages are available as searchable electronic texts from complete runs of publications generated by the House of Commons and the House of Lords. This vastly increases their accessibility, and not only because they are now online. The original texts are usually inaccessible because they are handwritten on parchment and vellum or they are extremely rare first-print editions.

Julian Ball, project leader of the 18th-century parliamentary papers project, says that there were highly controlled conditions in which the two-year digitisation programme was carried out.

"All the surviving papers from the 18th century were carefully transported from Cambridge and the British Library to our archive department here in Southampton," Ball says. "They were kept in an enhanced digitisation lab which is temperature controlled at 18C-20C, UV resistant, and with constant humidity." Papers were scanned using a Swiss-built robotic scanner that turns delicate pages of historical documents using vacuum technology. This freed staff to catalogue and index.


Newsfilm Online is digitising news clips from cinema reel to ITN and Reuters footage and putting them in a format that can be downloaded from the web. The results will be available from next autumn.

Murray Weston, director of the British Universities Film and Video Council that is managing the project, says that Newsfilm Online is unique because it links newsreels with other sources, providing context.

"Newsfilm Online will integrate with existing film archives such as cinema newsreel from 1911 to 1979. We hope that in 100 years' time people will look at this resource for primary research."

The project consists of 60,000 stories, totalling some 3,000 hours from the 20th and 21st-century archives of ITN and Reuters Television. This includes some of the most significant events of the past century such as the Crystal Palace fire (1936), the first interview with Nelson Mandela (1961) and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales (1997). BUFVC is using a process known as "video fuzzing" that masks copyright-protected material in order to sidestep potentially difficult rights issues.

Its output will be free at the point of use. Samples may be accessed at http:///newsfilm.bufvc.ac.uk/

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