Saturday, 3 December 2011

The British Newspaper Archive: A Great New Genealogy Resource

This week the genealogy world has been all atwitter with news of the official launch of the The British Newspaper Archive.  This is a joint venture between The British Library and brightsolid (the company behind ScotlandsPeople and FindMyPast) to digitise and make available online up to 40 million newspaper pages from the collection of the British Library.
At the time of writing there were over 3.1 million pages on the website but this is added to daily.  These include titles from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  Available date ranges vary considerably but there are some titles from the early 1700s and others that go up to the 1940s.  Some of the newspapers have been previously available through the ‘British Newspapers 1600-1900’ database (which is free to access through many libraries in the UK and elsewhere) but others are online for the first time.
An introduction to The British Newspaper Archive from BNArchive containing interviews with Ed King, Head of the British Library's Newspaper Collection, and Chris van der Kuyl, Chief Executive of brightsolid.
The archive is free to search but to view results it is necessary to purchase a subscription.  You can search by keywords or exact phrase and can filter your results by place of publication, publication title, date and article type.  You get quite a lot of information with a free search: title and date of the newspaper, article title & type, page number and a snippet of the text containing your search words (generated through OCR).  Although the OCR is far from perfect, in many cases this gives enough information to determine whether an article to likely to be relevant to your search.
A rather handy feature is that it is possible for users to correct the OCR generated article text, making it easier for others to find the same article.  I’ve added corrections to a few articles I’ve looked at, but it is a bit laborious.  You can also add tags to articles and bookmark them in different folders (for example, you could create separate folders for each branch of your family) and the site keeps a list of viewed articles under ‘My Research’ so you can easily go back and look at something again without using up credits.
I’ve had a lot of fun over the past few days searching for articles mentioning my ancestors and a lot of success.  I’m pretty lucky in that there are two titles covering the area where my Scottish mining ancestors lived and, as they have been digitised in colour (rather than in B&W from microfilm), the OCR is relatively accurate.  I am also lucky (or should that be unlucky?) in that my ancestors seem to have had rather a lot of brushes with the law!
This is a fairly typical example:
The Falkirk Herald and Linlithgow Journal
Wednesday, October 17, 1894.
Page 4, Column 6
BREACHES OF THE PEACE. -Susan Gilmour or Miller, Isabella Wilson or Broadley, Elizabeth Gilmour or Keenan, Agnes Donaldson or Gray, Sarah Miller or Gray, and William Gray, all residing at Southfield, Slamannan, were accused of having created a disturbance there on the 12th inst.  They, with the exception of William Gray, who pleaded not guilty, admitted the charge.  The Fiscal said he was prepared to accept the plea of the man Gray, as the ladies seemed to have been the aggressors in the affair. (Laughter.)
I haven’t yet worked out the relationships between all of these people, although the several shared surnames suggest this may have been a disagreement between extended family.
One of the criticisms I’ve seen of The British Newspaper Archive is the amount of duplication between it and other existing databases.  I’ve actually found this an advantage as the search options are much more user friendly and the fact you get a preview in your search results means it’s easier to spot relevant articles.  I’ve also found that performing identical searches returns more results with The British Newspaper Archive than with British Newspapers 1600-1900, and I’ve found some new information on my Yorkshire ancestors, even though I’ve searched the same newspapers previously.
A bigger problem is that using the download feature results, in my experience, in an illegible image in the majority of cases.  The only way to save a readable image that I’ve found is to go into ‘Full Screen View’, zoom in as much as possible (whilst keeping the entire article on screen) and then use your computer’s ‘print screen’ facility.  You can then crop the resulting image to show just the relevant article.  This works fine with a short article, but not with one in a long column or one that goes over several columns in a large broadsheet.
Another minor irritation is that when viewing an article your search terms aren’t highlighted, as in other newspaper databases.  This means you may have to read through several articles to find the one you want.  A way round this is to open the ‘Show Article Text’ box and then use your browser’s ‘Find’ command to locate your search term.  When you click on a line of text in ‘Article Text’ the same line is highlighted on the image.
A greater criticism relates to the price of subscriptions.  There are three options: a 12 Month Subscription costs £79.95 GBP and is described as Unlimited (but actually restricts you to 1000 pages a month); a 30 Day Package costs £29.95 GBP for 3000 credits; and a 2 Day Package costs £6.95 GBP for 500 credits.  Somewhat confusingly, the amount of credits needed to view one page varies depending on which package you have, the date of the article and whether it’s in colour or B&W.
I’ve taken out a 2 Day Package. So far I’ve found 21 articles relating to my family (a few I looked at weren’t relevant) and I’ve still got over 200 credits left.  I actually think that’s pretty good value when you consider that £6.95 is less than the cost of one BMD certificate and less than the cost of 30 credits on ScotlandsPeople.  In many cases it’s information I couldn’t have easily found elsewhere and although I could have looked at some of the newspapers at the National Library of Scotland, I would have had to visit in person, wait 30 mins for the microfilm to be delivered, scroll through a possibly poor quality microfilm and then pay for every print I wanted (providing, of course, one of the few microfilm printers was available and working).
However, I can’t see many family historians being willing to pay nearly £80 to subscribe to a website that only offers newspapers and the fact that the credit packages only last 2 or 30 days is definitely not ideal.  I’m not sure I will use all my credits in 2 days and it will be annoying to lose them.  As more titles are added in the future I may well find additional articles of interest and could end up having to take out another 2 day package every time I want to view just one article. 
I presumed that the subscription packages were aimed more at the academic researcher than the family historian but from reading others’ blogs and tweets it’s clear that researchers who are heavy users of online newspapers find the limit of 1000 pages a month far too restricted.  For a more detailed review by an academic historian who specialises in newspaper research I recommend the digital victorianist’s Review: The British Newspaper Archive.
I hope you have as much success in locating your ancestors in The British Newspaper Archive as I did.  It’s certainly worth trying out and you never know what you may find....