NEWSPLAN 2000 at the 2006 AUKML conference

 by Martin Belam, 6 October 2006

One of the talks that I really enjoyed at the AUKML conference the other week in Edinburgh was Cate Newton's presentation about NEWSPLAN 2000 in Scotland. In the end Cate couldn't deliver the talk herself, so one of her colleagues from the NLS gamely stepped in at the last moment. The original NEWSPLAN project was an archiving project around the UK which had been dedicated to preserving the fragile archives of regional and local papers held in libraries around the country. The website of the NEWSPLAN 2000 project has itself been preserved (at the rather user unfriendly URL of - was not available?) and it boasts that:

The NEWSPLAN 2000 Project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the UK Regional Newspaper Industry, preserved unique and fragile collections of local newspapers held in libraries throughout the United Kingdom.
During this time the Project preserved 1,325 newspaper titles onto 30,476 reels of archival-quality microfilm. These were distributed free of charge along to public libraries and archives all across the UK along with 309 microfilm readers and 156 reader-printers.

The Master Negative microfilm is now stored in a purpose built store at the National Library of Wales, thus providing a long and secure life for the newspaper titles now preserved.

The Duplicate Negative microfilm is now stored in the British Library where additional copies can be ordered.

This work leaves a lasting legacy to the public, enabling readers in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland to have access to historic files of local newspapers, often for the first time.

The National Library of Scotland makes available online the catalogue of Scottish newspaper titles that have been preserved. Scottish newspapers of yore had such exotic names - "The Aberdeen Pirate" is surely ripe for revival.

One of the advantages of centralising the preservation effort in this project was that where different libraries held differing runs of particular papers, had gaps in their collection, or the materials had suffered damage, the filming process was able to plug the gaps with copies from elsewhere in the library network, bring complete runs of titles together.

A vital part of the project was also securing the funding for the distribution of microfilm reading equipment, so that the archive could be distributed around the country and that people could once again easily access their historic local press in their local public lending library, rather than the films gathering dust in a repository.

One interesting part of the project for me was that they had opted to use microfilm to preserve the newspapers, rather than to digitise them. It was explained that when the project was conceived and funded the concept of digitising archives was in its infancy. Whereas microfilm is happily expected to last for hundreds of years, at the present time, as the BBC's Domesday Book project showed, the prospects for digital preservation don't always look so good.

Newsplan partners are having to re-visit this decision now. Firstly, digitising material has become a much more accepted way of preserving rare material. Secondly, the potential audience for this material is now used to having full-text digital retrieval of material via internet resources, rather than having to manually scan through potentially hundreds and hundreds of microfilms to find what they were looking for.

One of the nice things about the project is how open they have been with the information they have gathered - not only the newspaper archive itself which is available for free - but with the usage surveys they have carried out. The results of these are available on the web. The survey showed that nearly 10% of those accessing old newspapers in a library had travelled moe than 100 miles to do so, a finding which will hopefully spur on developments in making all of the information available online. The survey also gave a fascinating glimpse into the wealth of material that people were looking for - and it reads almost exactly like the end of the 'long tail' of search queries. When asked what they were hoping to find:

Every option here received some replies, demonstrating the diverse and varied reasons why people consult newspapers. Local events was the most popular receiving 36.7% of the responses, with births marriages and deaths receiving 27.8% and obituaries 22.7% as the next most popular.
Of the 18.8% who indicated ‘other’, reasons included were weather stories and data, herring fishing, accidental deaths, air raids during the war, shipping records, soldiers in World Wars I & II, support for the disabled, calculating tax returns, information on school boards, smallpox epidemic of 1942, ship building, musical venues and promoters, local sea captains on 1891 [sic], news of a drowning, railway accident near Bridge of Earn in 1848, wages and living conditions of ancestors, booksellers in the area in the 19th century, polar explorers, and an insight into Scottish perspective on international events.

At the end of the talk, one of the questions touched upon a subject that in recent weeks the UK's copyright libraries have been focussing on - digital copyright itself. Whilst the libraries involved in the NEWSPLAN project had the co-operation of the newspaper industry, what they didn't have of course was permission from any companies whose adverts appeared in those newspapers, or any people who appeared in photographs in the editions, or any of the individual journalists, or the people who had placed classified adverts and so on, to reproduce their work and make it freely available. A lot of that material is of just as much historic interest as the newspaper articles themselves. It is a situation where pretty much everybody involved has turned a blind eye to the legal complexity and invoked the concept of "the public benefit" outweighing any potential copyright infringement. If only people could always be so gracious about copyright.

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