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Robotic scanner preserves the pages of history

Published: 
19 November 2004

A cutting-edge robotic scanner - the first in the UK and only the second in the world to be installed in a research library - is being used in an exciting initiative to create a vast digital library from original bound and printed historical documents.

The University of Southampton is using the unique precision-built equipment to scan rare parliamentary documents as part of a project that aims to put 300 years of history online. Southampton is leading a consortium of researchers and academic libraries to digitise all surviving 18th century parliamentary papers and bills. These will then be available in a comprehensive web archive for students of history all over the world to access directly from their home or office computers.

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

The volumes currently being scanned and digitised are drawn from the Ford Collection of British Official Publications at the University of Southampton Library and from Cambridge University Library. Eighteenth-century printed Parliamentary material is particularly important because the fire which destroyed the House of Commons in 1834 also destroyed many manuscript records from this time.

The pioneering scanner technology, which is unique in the UK, uses lasers to detect page edges and then a vacuum technique to lift pages and flip them over automatically without damaging them. Since the documents being scanned are original historical documents, the process must be undertaken very sensitively.

The digitising line robotic scanner, which is the size of a small transit van and weighs one tonne, arrived at the University in June. In order to get it into the Hartley Library, some windows had to be taken out and a crane was used to hoist it inside. The scanner is now up and running, scanning around 600 pages an hour. The University aims to scan around one million pages of historical tomes every year.

Southampton is collaborating closely with Stanford University in the USA, which took delivery of the first robotic scanner 12 months ago. The two universities are already pooling ideas and experiences in what is hoped will be a long-term work exchange programme to share expertise and develop research library projects in the future.

Simon Brackenbury, Digital Library and Imaging Projects Manager at Southampton, explains: "In a sense, this project is a case study in automation. The robotic scanner works at high volume and is enabling us to put together large amounts of information rather than just hand-crafting small collections of material. In this way we are breathing life into historical documents, giving unparalleled access to previously inaccessible parliamentary material.

"This world-class scanning facility will without doubt greatly enhance the sector's ability to make millions of pages of historic printed research records accessible as a full text searchable Internet resource cost-effectively and in the space of several years rather than decades."

The material will form a permanent record of one of the most eventful periods of British history, covering the British Raj in India, the deportation of convicts to Australia and the beginning of the anti-slavery movement. 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.

The scanner is situated in the University's Hartley Library, which is formally reopened by the Marquess of Douro on Wednesday 24 November after a £10 million extension and refurbishment. One of the aims of the project was to recognise the importance of electronic media and reflect how libraries will work in the future.

Notes for editors

  1. Digital images available from Media Relations on request. Images include the robotic scanner and sample scanned pages of 18th century documents, including engravings.
  2. Simon Brackenbury, Digital Library and Imaging Projects Manager, is available for interview about the scanner and the digitisation project.
  3. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship. The University has around 20,000 students and nearly 5000 staff. Its annual turnover is in the region of £270 million.

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