Victorian news travels fast

An online resource from the British Library is speeding up research for scholars of the 19th century, says Zoë Corbyn

October 15, 2009

Scholars who spend their time studying society through old newspaper cuttings will be familiar with the difficulties of accessing such material.

For many, the trail starts at the British Library's archive in Colindale, north London.

The papers - which are often available only on microfiche - must be ordered in advance before the laborious wade through newsprint or film can even begin.

But now, an online resource is promising to revolutionise this painstaking process, at least for scholars of 19th-century events.

For the first time, researchers have a tool to help them explore from the comfort of their own desks nearly two million articles published between 1800 and 1900.

The £2 million project follows five years of development and is funded by the British Library, the Joint Information Systems Committee and Gale, the educational publisher.

It covers nearly 50 UK newspapers - adverts and birth and death notices included - which have been digitised so that their content can be searched via an online database.

Users can pinpoint individual articles, read entire pages or view whole issues.

The project was a huge undertaking. The articles had to be scanned from film and run through machines to ensure they were searchable.

The service, known as the 19th Century Online Newspapers Collection, is free for university scholars and is also available to the public for a small fee. It was launched in June, but last week the British Library began a drive to alert the academy to just how useful the service can be.

Ed King, head of newspaper collections at the British Library, said he believed it was "transformational in research terms".

He added that it not only dramatically speeds up the process of locating articles - what used to take days or months at Colindale can now be done in minutes - but also promises to advance research by providing scholars with new material to examine.

"You get results across a range of newspapers now that you would probably never have dreamt of looking at before," Mr King said.

"Whereas previously researchers tended to focus on just one or two newspapers - simply because that's all there was time for - they can now search across far more sources."

Treasure trove

To give a flavour of the material that can be studied, researchers can access everything from reports on the Napoleonic wars to the Australian gold rush of the 1850s and the east London match girls' strike of 1888.

They can also read up on topics as diverse as 19th-century bathing machines, smoking and drinking among children, and the banking collapse of 1878.

The project has been limited to the 19th century because of copyright rules.

Mr King said the library's decision was based on the rule of thumb that the material would be outside the legal time frame governing copyright, although he added that it had still tried to contact the publishers where possible to check that it was on safe ground.

The plan now is to extend access to more recent material.

"Now we have the database, we want to go back to the publishers and say: 'Can we actually bring this forward with your agreement, and what would be your terms?'" he said.

In the meantime, the library is working to upload another one million pages, spanning roughly the same period, from another 22 newspapers.

This task is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

James Secord, professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge, is one of the researchers who has already benefited from the resource.

He said: "Everything from biographical details to editorials about major events can be recovered, making this a useful tool for anyone interested in the national past.

"Work that would have taken painful weeks on a microfiche reader can now be done in an afternoon."

The collection includes defunct national newspapers such as The Daily News, English regional papers such as The Manchester Times, and newspapers from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. It also covers weekly titles such as The Penny Illustrated Paper and The Graphic, and specialist publications that covered such issues as Victorian radicalism and Chartism.

Mr King estimated that the library has about 750 million newspaper pages in its collection.

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