More like a trove

I've updated my list of British newspapers online, 1901-1950 to reflect the new titles available in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA), a pay-site which was launched with some fanfare about a month ago. Although it has been digitised from (and in partnership with) the British Library's newspapers collections, I must admit to not having paid much attention at the time because it sounded like it only covered 1900 and earlier. While that's mostly true, there's actually enough to interest an early 20th-century historian, especially in terms of regional newspapers, and more titles and pages are promised. Having said that, the price structure isn't very appealing for what's on offer, so I haven't subscribed to BNA and probably won't until I have a specific purpose in mind.

Most of the 20th-century titles are available only up to 1903. But the Western Times (Exeter) is available right up until 1950, and the Tamworth Herald until 1944. Four other newspapers have digitised runs of over a decade: Cheltenham Looker-On (1902 to 1913); North Devon Journal (Barnstaple, to 1923); Nottingham Evening Post (1921 to 1944); Western Daily Press (Bristol, 1915 to 1930). You can download whole pages (though apparently not individual articles), though sadly without a text layer. The free samples are good quality -- of course, they would be, but keyword searches (which you can do for free) suggests that the OCR is generally good. There is also the ability to correct the text where the OCR fails; and you can tag or comment on individual articles. User accounts also come with a 'My Research' section which allows you to bookmark articles as well as view a history of previous searches performed and articles viewed. A potentially handy feature is the ability to perform a keyword search on just the articles you've viewed. Searching in general is fast and powerful; you can quickly narrow a query by period, area, title or section of newspaper. I'm impressed with BNA's user interface overall: it is a lot like (and I'm sure directly inspired by) the National Library of Australia's Trove Digitised Newspapers but with a few more improvements for the dedicated researcher in mind.

Now for the complaints. These all revolve around the non-free nature of BNA. I do have philosophical objections to state institutions handing over their nation's cultural heritage largely preserved at taxpayer expense to free enterprise to make a buck out of, but there are practical problems too.1 The facilities for tagging, commenting and correcting are great, for example, but I question whether these are going to be used much in a non-open environment like this. Especially corrections: Trove has a community of eager text-correctors who make over a hundred thousand corrections a day; but then Trove is free. Expecting people to pay BNA for the privilege of improving their product is a bit much to ask, it seems to me. Apparently the current commercial arrangement will last for ten years, after which it may become open; but by then the technology will no doubt need updating and probably another commercial arrangement to fund it. I realise that digitisation and hosting costs money and it's not the British Library's fault it had to go down this route if it wanted to make its newspaper collection available to all; but I much prefer the Antipodean ethos on this one. Some of the problems resulting from the non-free, non-open nature of BNA could be fixed, though. As I noted above, given the limited number of titles currently available for the 20th century, subscribing for a whole year is not attractive to me. Why not have a cheaper option for just the 20th century?

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  1. BNA is free to use from the British Library's reading rooms. []

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