A Wow for The Scotsman's digital archive

16th January 2005

My blithest workday last month was spent in the British Library's newspaper archive in Colindale, North London. Simply stepping through the doors of the vast brick building is to enter a timewarp. Bags are handed across a weathered wooden counter into a cloakroom, and up the stair you go to be greeted by a trio of lady librarians behind the semi-circular counter. Fill in the forms and, if you are lucky, porters will bring along vast leather-bound volumes to your desk. These are surmounted by wooden racks that are about eighty years old, sturdy enough to hold each volume. Slips of paper direct you to tables where more delicate ediitons are laid out flat. Less dramatically and more awkwardly, the papers are sometimes replaced by boxes of microfiche. Winding the film through the machines has its own bloody awkward charm, I'm still grateful for the information, but much prefer the investigative aura of the newspapers themselves. Each mission through the pages has a sense of personal quest attached. Who else in the last hundred years has scanned these pages seeking a titbit of information in a forgotten article? I love the byways as well, news stories of incidental lives and times that suddenly come alive for a spell.

My most exciting day of this year was spent at home, whirling through research of The Scotsman in its digital archive. This runs at present from the paper's founding in 1817 to the end of 1900. They tell me that the process will extend up to 1910 quite soon, with plans to have the period up to 1950 covered by around Easter. thereafter the progress will become slower, as the paper grows from eight daily pages to a hundred or more.

My own current run of research is for a biography of the scientist J.S.Haldane. Though he is Scottish, he was based in Oxford during the 1890s, working a good deal in London, and the main thrust of his work was investigating coal mining disasters in Wales and the north of England. I was not hopefully of great on-the-spot coverage from Edinburgh of events I had already pursued through Welsh and English newspapers. However they came up trumps, with several salient features not covered elsewhere. It impresses me that back in the 1890s a report could be telgraphed from a Welsh valley at 10pm one evening to be printed in Scotland's morning editions.

OK, I'm deprived of the fun of my trip to Edinburgh or COlindale, where I might have looked through the same papers. I am also spared the time and expense. And while microfiche benefits a library in terms of storage capacity and preservation, digitization is a mighty boon to the researcher. Hardest for me was scanning the miniaturized print of a full newspaper page, locating the areas where my articles might be. This grows simpler as a newspaper reveals its regular format, similar stories of similar pages of each edition. The Scotsman's archive outlines articles in red, however, and a click on these makes the article fill the screen. And wonder of wonders, the typeface is large. No more straining after the microscopic that afflicts even the originals. The search words are also helpfully underlined in blue.

Search words? Yes, that's the wonder and joy of this method. It takes a while to master (and the support team at the archive were astonishingly responsive and construcive with their help), but piece by piece a whole network of hitherto buried pieces emerged. I could find Haldane's student letters, though unsigned, because I had the information from elsewhere. But I knew nothing of his talks to the British Association in Oxford or to the Mining Institute, and The Scotsman's full reporting of these gave me some of those essential smaller details that will give my own account real substance.

The British Library is digitizing runs of newspapers from 1800-1900, to be available online to colleges and universities. The Times is working its way back from the present day, reaching in to the 1980s so far. Google seems set on changing our world by digitizing whole libraries. For now, bravely and admirably and wondrously, The Scotsman is leading the way. You can buy your way into it for a daily rate. Give it a go. It's a glimpse of the future, a firm hand-hold on the future, a thrill and a bargain.

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The Scotsman's Digital Archive.