From scandal to empire: the 18th Century uncovered
27 March 2007
A project which has applied 21st Century technology to the digitisation of rare and delicate 18th Century parliamentary papers has been launched at an event at the House of Commons.
The 18th Century Parliamentary Papers project, led by the University of Southampton and funded by JISC (the Joint Information Systems Committee), makes openly available for the first time a complete run of all the parliamentary papers, bills and journals of a momentous century of achievement, upheaval and empire.
The project is the latest stage in the BOPCRIS (British Official Publications Collaborative Reader Information Service) project to digitise British Official Publications over the period 1688-1995.
The 18th Century, which witnessed the birth of the Industrial Revolution, the loss of the American colonies and the scandal-ridden tenure of Britain's 'first prime minister', Sir Robert Walpole, is now captured in a unique and freely-available resource which allows access to otherwise inaccessible and poorly-indexed materials. The early days of the British Raj are documented by the resource, as are wider cultural and scientific developments, such as the invention of John Harrison's longitude clocks. The texts document the intense debates in Parliament regarding the abolition of the slave trade.
Revolutionary technology has brought this resource to life. For the first time in the UK, a one tonne robotic scanner, capable of working its way through over 500 pages of historical materials in an hour, was used. Pages are turned with vacuum technology, their edges pinpointed by lasers. This output rate has freed up staff time to devote to the indexing and classification of the digitised resource, leading to unprecedented search functionality across the more than 14,000 documents and one million pages made available in the collection.
Project leader, Julian Ball of the University of Southampton, said: 'The project brings together a rare and comprehensive set of 1400 volumes of British official parliamentary publications from 1688 to 1834. Volumes have been accessed from the University of Southampton and the partners' libraries at the University of Cambridge and the British Library. Texts include the Journals of the House of Commons and Lords, Private Bills and Acts, Parliamentary Register and the House of Commons and Lords Sessional Papers.
'Web access is provided to the HE and FE academic community of one million facsimile pages from these entire volumes. Not only are the printed texts, diagrams and tables available as greyscale images, but colour maps and images are available in full colour. The digital texts have been made searchable using optical character recognition processes, so the entire contents of the collections can be searched by word or phrase.
'Building this digital resource has been an exciting journey for all of those involved. I would like to thank all the partners for their support and energy in helping us to create what is a unique resource for the study of Parliament in the 18th Century.'
The project has strong support in Westminster. The Speaker of the House of Commons, the Rt Hon Michael Martin MP, said: 'Every society learns from the study of its history; I hope that, by providing easy-to-use access to the historical records of Parliament, this project encourages more people to study and understand the way in which our country was governed.'
Professor Sir Ron Cooke, Chairman of JISC, said: 'This is an impressive resource which uses cutting-edge technology to make universally available materials of immense importance to the history of this country. JISC is proud to have funded a resource which will give so many users unique insights into a fascinating and important period of our history.'
Richard Wake, Deputy Librarian at the University of Southampton Library, said: 'This exciting and innovative project reflects the long-standing commitment by the University of Southampton to make British Official Publications accessible through the exchange of knowledge and expertise within the higher education sector.'
Paul Seaward, director of the History of Parliament Trust said: 'BOPCRIS's digitisation of the proceedings of the 18th Century Parliaments represents an enormously valuable resource for students of politics, society and culture in the period - not just in Britain, but also in America and all of Britain's colonial possessions at the time. These sources, vast in their scope and comprehensive in their coverage, are now available in an easily-searchable format, providing everyone with instant access to a treasure house of historical material.'
This project is one of 22 digitisation projects being managed by JISC with funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The JISC programme represents a total investment of more than £22m in the digitisation of high-quality online content, including sound, moving pictures, newspapers, census data, maps, archives, journals, parliamentary papers and cartoons for use by the UK further and higher education communities.