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

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The History and future of British trade identities

Cross-posted from History & Policy (originally published 23/11/14)

  • Many of the core debates in UK politics today concern the nation’s future trade: the question of Scottish independence, devolution of political power to the regions, and a potential referendum on EU membership. Exploring the history of British trade identities can provide important insights into how we got here and the potential choices for policy makers. As historian Jim Tomlinson has argued, the twentieth century witnessed a gradual process of the ‘partial de-globalisation’ of British regions, with the declining influence of manufacturing and the growth of a more atomised service-sector economy. The discontents this has caused, exacerbated by the recent worldwide economic downturn, have been seized upon by parties such as the SNP and UKIP.

Britain, almost uniquely among major nations, retained a system of free trade until 1932. This owed much to the strong integration of Britain’s regions into global trade relationships. Amongst the heartlands of electoral support for free trade in Edwardian Britain were the cotton manufacturing towns of Lancashire and textile producing districts of West Yorkshire, which relied heavily on exports to a variety of world markets; and Dundee, then a global centre for jute manufacture. Even when tariffs were introduced in the 1930s, Britain sought to lower trade barriers to aid industrial exporters, signing trade treaties with a number of countries including Denmark, Argentina and the USA.

In fact, the 1930s can be seen as a higher watermark in support for the Union. A Conservative-dominated National Government won landslide election victories in 1931 and 1935, achieving a clear majority of seats in England and Scotland on both occasions. Business organisations such as the Federation of Chambers of Commerce of the British Empire and the Federation of British Industries played an important role in trade affairs at this time, giving regional groups such as Liverpool and Glasgow shipbuilders, Lancashire cotton producers, and Yorkshire textile industrialists an important lobbying role with governments both in Britain and the wider Commonwealth. These bodies helped exporters develop links with overseas buyers, gave advice on commercial arbitration, and enabled industrialists to lobby for access to lower tariff rates in Dominions such as Australia, Canada, and South Africa. In turn, popular campaigns were launched in those countries to support the buying of goods from Britain and the wider Empire.

This system was challenged after 1945, leading to the eventual fracturing of Commonwealth trade relationships in the 1960s, which occurred concurrently with Britain’s first attempts to join the European Economic Community. Moreover, a steady decline in the role of manufacturing within the UK economy undermined regional identities, which were closely tied to industry. Whereas manufacturing made up 41 percent of the British economy in 1948,  this fell to around 30 percent in the early 1970s, and stands at 10 percent today. The region with the highest reliance on manufacturing is the East Midlands, where it accounts for 12.5 percent of jobs, whereas manufacturing accounts for only 2.4 percent of jobs in London. The troubled economic times of the 1970s led to a growth in Celtic nationalism which challenged the authority of central government at Westminster, a crisis brilliantly documented in Tom Nairn’s The break-up of Britain (1977). In October 1974, following a year in which oil prices escalated as the result of an Arab embargo, the SNP claimed over thirty per cent of the vote in Scotland (a share they have not bettered at a British general election since).

The recent revival in opposition to the two main parties at Westminster can be seen, in part, as a reaction to the ongoing long-term experiences of regional de-industrialisation and a concurrent de-globalisation of trade, aggravated by the recent recession. Scottish regions such as Dundee, which have experienced de-globalisation acutely as a result of the decline of manufacturing, voted for independence, whereas Edinburgh, a centre for international financial services, voted two-to-one against.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent pledge to tackle the ‘West Lothian question’ and implement a major devolution of powers across the four nations has further stoked debate about the future direction of Britain and the possibilities for English regional government. While the proposed devolution of decision-making may potentially help foster regional development, it is unclear how this will be achieved given that England makes up 85 percent of the UK’s population. What is most important is the need to rebalance the economy, lessening its reliance on financial services honeypots such as London and Edinburgh, and stimulating links with expanding markets in the regions. The UK is far more reliant on financial services exports as a percentage of total service sector exports than other G7 countries, making it particularly vulnerable to further instability in world markets.

The revived importance of the Commonwealth in world trade was recognised by the 2013 Lords’ Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence chaired by Lord Howell, which called for government to pay greater attention to developing economic links with this network of nations. With several fast-growing economies, including India, Australia and South Africa, and a doubling of trade between its members in the last 20 years, the Commonwealth provides key markets for the future. The UK is particularly well placed to exploit this link due to strong historical trade ties and the evolution of similar business cultures and legal institutions.

The Commonwealth Business Council, a company with corporate members, which promoted trade and investment in Commonwealth countries, ceased trading in July 2014. It is imperative that a successor organisation is formed which can play an important role in stimulating intra-Commonwealth trade. In addition, government needs to provide universities with greater opportunities to develop research and development links with markets such as India and China, thereby catalysing the UK’s regional economies.

Welcome signs of progress in this regard include the recent expansion of links between the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Indian Council of Historical Research, as well as the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. AHRC projects offer a range of opportunities to project the UK’s ‘soft power’ – that is, building trust and prestige between nations through cultural influence. For example, Picturing China 1870-1950, a touring exhibition curated by historian Robert Bickers, offered a sophisticated image of pre-1949 China and its relations with the West. The project, which amassed and digitised photos by British expatriates and Chinese nationals, created a new public forum for discussion of complex pre-1949 Western-Chinese relations in China. In total the Foreign and Commonwealth Office estimates that the project reached 10 million people.

Globalisation may be a catchphrase for these times, but it has important historical antecedents, which throw light on the current challenges facing British policy makers as increasing numbers of disillusioned voters seek alternatives to the traditional two-party system. One of the key challenges that UK politicians face today is appealing to a population which has witnessed the partial de-globalisation of trade in some regions, it is therefore imperative that efforts are made to stimulate connections with growing markets such as India and China building on historic connections.