British Library to digitise 40 million newspaper pages

The British Library announced today that it will be digitising up to 40 million pages of historic newspapers.

The project will take 10 years and spans over three centuries of material, including 52,000 local, regional, national and international titles. It comes as a joint partnership between the British Library and online publisher Brightsolid.

The plan is to digitise at least four million pages within the first two years, with substantially more following as the library streamlines the process and negotiates copyright with those who hold it.

“[This is] the most significant programme of newspaper digitisation this country has ever seen,” said Dame Lynne Brindley, Chief Executive of the British Library. “Historic newspapers are an invaluable resource for historians, researchers, genealogists, students and many others, bringing past events and people to life with great immediacy and in rich detail. Mass digitisation unlocks the riches of our newspaper collections by making them available online to users across the UK and around the world.”

The British Library already holds 750 million pages of newspapers, which is the largest collection in the world, but these are currently only available in print or microfilm, which creates a problem for researches but also for those conserving the pieces, some of which are extremely fragile.

Over 30,000 researchers use the Newspaper Library in Colindale each year, which shows how much demand there is. It is not clear what kind of impact the digitisation will have, however, as it may mean substantially less people will visit Colindale annually.

Chris van der Kuyl, CEO of Brightsolid, said: “Digitisation will mean that those people who haven’t previously been able to access the physical resource will now be able to access it from anywhere at any time.”

One issue that was raised, however, is cost. The price of the project is set at up to £1 ($1.40) per page. That would mean the project could cost upwards of £40 million ($56 million) over the ten year period, and more if particularly rare or valuable pieces need extra work before being put online.

There’s no denying that this is a substantial sum of money and it may be a sticking point for some who have seen their local libraries close down or receive reduced funding. However, considering the historical value of many of these newspapers, including some that feature the Crimean and Boer wars, the digitisation project is vital for preservation. It also opens up the collections to a wider global audience, which will benefit academic institutions and general scholarship.

“This will be the largest mass digitization of historic newspapers the UK has ever seen,” said Ben Sanderson, a spokesperson for the British Library.