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The University of Southampton

Eighteenth century Parliamentary papers - available at the click of a mouse

Published: 10 November 2003

Historians will soon be able to consult 18th century Parliamentary papers and bills directly from their home or office computers.

The University of Southampton is leading a consortium of researchers and academic libraries to digitise these documents and make them freely available on a web archive to anyone with an interest in social, political, economic or legal history. Enquirers will be able to discover the origins of the welfare state, factors that shape our current transport system and the development of the British economy both nationally and internationally.

In the late 18th century, Britain was establishing itself as an imperial power in India, the first ships carrying transported convicts arrived in Australia and the anti-slavery movement began.

A special robotic machine using cutting-edge technology will scan the documents at up to 900 pages an hour, automatically turning pages without any damage to the originals. Eighteenth-century printed Parliamentary material is important because the fire which destroyed the House of Commons in 1934 also destroyed many manuscript records.

The £1.4 million project is part of a £10 million digitisation programme financed by the Government through the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) made up of all UK further and higher education funding bodies.

Speaker of the House of Commons, the Rt. Hon Michael Martin said: "Parliament's work throughout the centuries has shaped the United Kingdom's history and it is right and proper that its records are as accessible as possible to all who want to study them.

"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."

Director of Development at JISC, Alicia Wise, said: "This is a fantastic opportunity for the people of this country to find out about how the Parliamentary system not only governs people's lives, but can capture the essence of a nation. Whilst this project will be of greatest benefit to those with an interest in the humanities, social sciences and medicine, the potential uses from an education perspective are innumerable."

Dr Mark Brown, University librarian and project director, said: "As one of the lead contributors to the development of digitised content for British official publications, we are delighted to be working with the JISC on this major national initiative to exploit the benefits of new technology to create a critical mass of digitised resources for this fascinating period of our history."

Notes for editors

  1. The project is building upon progress already made by the BOPCRIS consortium, which has been shaping a national digital resource through more than £1million investment funding from the New Opportunities Fund, The Research Support Libraries Programme and The British Library Co-operation and Partnership Programme. As part of the JISC Digitisation Programme - CSR2 - the Project will contribute to establishing over 3.5 million web pages of British Official Publications material.
  2. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship. The University, which celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 2002, has 20,000 students and over 4,500 staff and plays an important role in the City of Southampton. Its annual turnover is in the region of £235 million.
  3. JISC - Joint Information Systems Committee - is a committee of all UK FE and HE funding bodies and is responsible for supporting the innovative use of information and communication technology to support learning, teaching and research. It is best known for providing the JANET network, a range of support, content and advisory services, and a portfolio of high-quality resources.
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