Read all about it: The online newspaper archive

  • 29 November 2011
  • From the section Technology
  • comments

Want to find out more about the history of your street, your community or your family? The archives of your local paper may be a good place to start. So I'm betting that a website which went live this morning will get a lot of attention.

The British Library's newspaper archive at Colindale in north London has long been a place of pilgrimage for writers and historians wanting to search through its extraordinary collection of just about every paper printed in the UK over the last 300 years.

But even if you make the trek, finding your way to that particular article in the Ayrshire Post or the Wigan Observer can be a challenge. Now, though, you won't need to make the trip, which in any case is being moved to a new home; you will be able to search it online.

The British Newspaper Archive website is one of the most ambitious digital projects undertaken by a museum. In a room high up in the library, giant scanning machines have been capturing the contents of papers from across the UK. The project will last another 10 years and involves scanning 40 million pages.

The British Library has teamed up with Brightsolid, a technology firm which specialises in family history. The process, which will involve substantial investment, is run on commercial lines, and users will have to pay a subscription if they want to view the digital archive and download items.

For now most of what's on offer dates back to the 19th Century, partly because scanning more recent newspapers involves all sorts of copyright issues: some of the papers would rather keep control of their own archives.

But it looks likely to become an extraordinary resource for anyone interested in knowing a bit more about their family background, or as a way of exploring history through the eyes of the reporters of the time.

On a quick tour, I got some feeling of the scale of the project. Walking along the miles of shelves you come across all kinds of treasures: from accounts of the Battle of Waterloo to rare 1920s football programmes; from the great affairs of state to the dog show held at my local pub in 1896. Now, if you master the arcane art of searching the site, all this can be yours - for a price, of course.

What really comes across is the sheer depth of information buried in the archives of our regional press. And that raises a question. With local newspapers getting thinner or closing every week, what picture of our communities in the 21st Century will be left for future researchers?