Archives and Digitisation: The Global Challenges of Digital Newspapers

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Cross-posted from Imperial and Global Forum
Among the most frustrating experiences of my PhD were days spent scouring local newspapers at the ramshackle (and now closed) British Library Newspaper Reading Room at Colindale, and the inexplicably dark microfilm room at Cambridge University Library. Spending a few weeks working at the latter in the winter would provide good training for life at an Antarctic research base. With these experiences in mind I have been surprised at how large a part newspapers have played in my current research on the history of British trade identities in the UK and wider Empire/Commonwealth.Recent years have seen a worldwide explosion in access to digitised newspapers, which obviously opens up a range of exciting new opportunities to researchers in imperial and global history. Having never previously conducted research in Australian archives, I was able to access thousands of articles from the National Library of Australia from the comfort of my home, significantly shaping both my post-doctoral funding application and the issues I was to explore in the archive itself. Yet the ever-growing range of newspaper material available also offers significant challenges to how we do research and train our students.Wikipedia (where else) provides a good introduction to the range of digitised historical newspaper archives available and the bewildering number of different national practices that exist in terms of their promotion. A historian undertaking a project on the ‘old’ Commonwealth c. 1900 currently has access to freely available national newspaper databases for Australia (Trove) and New Zealand (PapersPast), a variety of sites for Britain (many of which are behind paywalls, and which UK universities often have patchy access to due to high costs of institutional subscriptions), various provincial and local sites for Canada, and little digital content for South Africa. In addition, a slew of historical newspaper resources are offered byGoogle News Search.In many ways, Trove serves as a benchmark for what can be done, storing over 100 million articles from newspapers (usually up to 1955) and other important publications such as the Australian Women’s Weekly (1933-82). But what makes Trove’s database invaluable is that it provides a one-stop shop for researchers, including a search engine for Australian archives, digitised images, and an increasing amount of archive content from important sources such as the University of Melbourne Special Collections. In addition, the ambitious digitisation plans of Australian institutions such as the State Library of New South Wales is to be applauded.

However, the increasing availability of digitised newspaper material also raises a number of challenges for current and future researchers….

Contextualising material. While spending long hours waiting for large volumes of newspapers in Colindale could be painful, handling the original print can significantly widen your understanding of a newspaper and its likely readership. You are forced to trawl through the whole content of the publication, which gives you a wider understanding of how the themes you are interested in fit in with the broader coverage of the paper. This is something that is lost if you confine your research to keyword searches.

While my students have often used digital newspaper archives to great effect they sometimes have difficulty in understanding the context in which newspapers were produced. The well-establishedTimes Digital Archive is the most widely used historical newspaper source in the UK, but it is important to remember that the high-circulation Times of the Murdoch years is quite a different creature from the ‘establishment paper’ of previous decades. The Hancock’s Half Hour audience of 1959 was clearly meant to assume that the working-class Tony’s readership of the Times in the opening scene of the classic ‘Poison Pen Letters’ was a contrived effort at emulating the upper ranks of society.

What gets missed. In addition, it is important to emphasise that a great deal of material does not get digitised. As already mentioned, current digitisation of newspapers varies widely by locality, and its scope is also affected by varying national copyright practices. Some of the largest circulation UK publications of the early twentieth century, which were discontinued, such as the Sunday Pictorial currently have no digital presence. Multiple daily editions of papers were often produced, so the example that we see in the digital archive is not necessarily fully representative of the newspaper’s output. Furthermore, an archive such as the Times Digital Archive does not contain many of the supplements associated with the Times. Amongst the most important of these are the Times Imperial and Foreign Trade Supplement (later the Times Engineering Supplement), a long-running publication with a large international business readership. Finally, it is easy to miss material due to the limited effectiveness of keyword searches and text detection software.

The future position of the (material) archive. It is important to consider how the growth of digitised material will affect our future understandings of what archives are for. The recent controversy over the potential destruction of the Barnardo’s photo archive following the digitisation of these materials offers a worrying precedent here. In Australia, the planned redevelopment of the Mitchell Library in Sydney led to a major debate about the position of the academic researcher in public state libraries.

Having become accustomed to working in ‘research libraries’ in Britain where access is largely restricted to card-holders with an academic affiliation, it has been an eye-opening experience working in Australian state libraries with unrestricted public access, where researchers are often significantly outnumbered by schoolchildren doing their homework and people making use of fast wi-fi and decent air-conditioning (obviously the latter is not such a major concern in the UK). I even heard the tour-guide at one centrally-located state library refer to the luggage room of their building as the ‘backpacker area’ as it seemed to be largely used by tourists as a luggage storage facility for those en-route to the nearby train station and airport bus. Fortunately the Mitchell Library has been reprieved and will be not be turning into another bijou Sydney coffee-spot any time soon.

Initiatives like Trove and PapersPast are clearly invaluable and make possible research avenues that would clearly not have been possible only a few years ago, providing an invaluable supplement to the traditional archival trawl and offering us new opportunities to understand transnational connections. However, it is important that a generation of digitally native students (and perhaps more importantly a generation of austerity-era politicians) do not see research as something that is done chiefly on a laptop. Sydney has enough good cafes (although Colindale could do with one).

David Thackeray

Film Archives and the Future of Imperial History

Archives and Digitisation 1: Film Archives and the Future of Imperial History

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David Thackeray
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @d_thackeray

 

Last month I had the pleasure of participating in a joint workshop staged by the AHRC Care for the Future and Labex: Passes Dans le Present research clusters at the Royaumont Foundation near Paris. The two days showcased a range of projects assessing how study of the past can inform contemporary and future policy-making and cultural debates- from the use of colonial heroes in modern Africa, to how digitisation is reshaping understanding of museums, and the links between modern and historical anti-slavery movements.

My own focus was on the challenges facing film archives and how this affects the future of imperial history. For the historian of imperial trade networks – film provides a fascinating, and in many ways under-used resource. As the most popular form of entertainment for much of the twentieth century (there were over 30 million cinema attendances weekly in Britain in 1945), it was also widely seen as a harbinger of the ‘Americanization’ of global culture. Yet at the same time, Britain was at the forefront of the development of the non-fiction film, and sought to promote documentary film networks across the empire and globally. Many of the film-makers who made films for bodies such as the Empire Marketing Board such as Basil Wright, Norman McLean and Paul Rotha went on to play an important role in the early publicity activities of UN agencies including UNESCO and the FAO.

At the same time, film is an (often fragile) material resource. While some historic film reels have been digitised through initiatives such as the AHRC Colonial Film project they represent only a fraction of many film archive holdings (in some cases around 1% of the physical collections). Moreover, digital curation throws up its own challenges: how best to edit and present material to the public, particularly when it includes material which wasn’t designed for a mass audience such as the home movies shot by John Birch, director of Unilever in Sierra Leone in the 1940s and 1950s. And yet, ideas such as the Youtube channel provide significant opportunities for museums to offer new perspectives on their collections. For example, the Royal Museum of Central Africa, which is currently undergoing an extensive renovation, has developed a series of Youtube videos on the museum’s work, as part of a wider effort to create a ‘museum without walls’. These efforts are particularly important to rebranding the museum, which is physically constrained by the imperial triumphalism (and dubious racial imagery) of the original construction of the building.

 

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As part of my AHRC fellowship, I am organising a workshop at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum in Exeter on 8 June to bring together academics and archivists to discuss some of the challenges and opportunities confronting the British Empire/ Commonwealth film archive. The Tate and Lyle ‘World in a Cube’ project provides one example of how businesses are seeking new ways to present their film archives to a wider public. As one of the world’s leading sugar companies Tate and Lyle produced many films in Britain, the Carribean, and West Africa. Few of these films are currently digitised and the company has undertaken a number of initiatives to consider how best to present these films in the future, including employee workshops and a creative media competition where people were encouraged to produce edits of the films. Bristol Museums and Galleries is facing similar issues in how to present the imperial film archive in the future. Bristol inherited the collections of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum when it closed in 2009, which includes 2000 reels of film from the Royal Commonwealth Society. There will certainly be much to discuss!