Digital 19th Century Britain


Headline from Penny Illustrated Newspaper, Saturday, 8 July 1911, from

There has been much fuss this week about the Digital Britain report, a blueprint for the country’s broadband future in which services, entertainment, knowledge and the health of the economy to come are pinned to the hope that everyone will be linked up to a frankly measly 2Mbps connection by 2012. The report has come in for much criticism, chiefly because it poses more questions than answers, but it does also cover important areas such a digital literacy (so everyone is able to navigate their way through this new world and enjoy a common level of benefits) and points out innovative models which have made digitised collections available to all.

A model example, highlighted in the report, is the British Library’s 1800-1900 Newspapers project. I must admit to a vested interest here, as the BL helps pay the rent that keeps up the tottering edifice that is Bioscope Towers. But by any measure this is a marvellous resource, exceptional in its content and presentation, but also a model of how a major digitised collection can be created that brings benefit to all.

Digitisation costs money. We know that are billions of pages in the world’s libraries, we know we’d like to have them all at our fingertips, and we know we’d rather not pay for it. The BL’s newspaper collection represents some 750 million pages. The new resource present 2 million of these. The money has come from a UK educational body which funds resources for higher education, the Joint Information Systems Committee, and a commercial partner, Gale Cengage. The JISC paid for the digitised newspapers to be made available for free to UK universities, while the public had to visit the British Library physical site to see the resource.


That was the case for the past year or so, but from today the commercial side of the deal kicks in. Gale Cengage co-funded the project on the understanding that it could make the newspaper resource available to the online public, under a subscription model. You can buy a 24-hour pass for £6.99 which allows you to view up to 100 articles, or you can buy a seven-day pass with 200 article views for £9.99. There is plenty, however, that is available for free – two newspapers, The Graphic and Penny Illustrated Paper, are free (the search page has a tick box where you can search for free content only), you can search and browse the database, see thumbnails of any article, and even call up a window which shows your chosen term in context – as in the example above, which gives us the heartening information that Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser was able to tell its audience about the Edison Kinetoscope on 10 March 1894. There are also a number of freely available PDF examples tied to some excellent background histories.

The sheer range of newspapers is eye-opening, including such titles (just to start from the top) as the Aberdeen Journal, Baner Cymru, Belfast News-Letter, Birmingham Daily Post and Brighton Patriot (along with forty-four others). The major papers that carried on into the 20th and 21st centuries, such as The Times and The Guardian are not there, both because they are ongoing businesses and because they have developed their own commercial digital archives. And although the title says 1800-1900, the actual range is 1800-1913 – ideal for early cinema studies.

So, using our regular search term of ‘kinetoscope’, there are 433 hits overall, and five available for free. So there is a huge amount you can discover about the spread nationally of the first motion picture film device, even if some of those articles will not lead you to Edison’s invention but rather to a not very successful racehorse given that name (an early example of product sponsorship or simply the whim of a technologically-savvy owner? Someone should be researching this). ‘Cinematograph’ yields 1990 hits, sixty-one of them free. You can either view the article, the full page, or browse that issue. One other handy feature – each thumbnail says whether what you have looked for comes under News, Arts & Entertainment, Advertising, Business News or People, depending on the section from which it comes.

The model of a commercial body paying for the digitisation of out-of-copyright material like this, making it available to all through (relatively) low-cost subscription, while the host library gets its collection digitised and can make the results freely available onsite, is hopefully one that may lead to still greater access to newspaper content from this era. 2 million pages done; just 748 million left to do. While you’re waiting, go explore.