Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Value of Welsh Newspapers Online

I recently attended and spoke at an expert seminar prior to the launch of Welsh Newspapers Online at the Pierhead in Cardiff.

The seminar was excellent and the launch went like a dream. The folks at the National Library of Wales have done a great job with this newspaper resource which will deliver
1,000,000 pages of Welsh history to 1910 online, and free of charge.

See also this video explaining the Welsh Newspapers Online

One speaker stood out from the array of great talks on that day. Jim Mussell gave an entrancing discourse on what newspapers mean and his insight into the promise of novelty wrapped in familiarity that newspapers engage in. The whole of his talk is available at his excellent blog: but I quote the part which changed my perceptions of newspapers the most:

"The appeal of the newspaper is predicated on the promise of novelty, but the newspaper itself consists of a complex set of recurring forms. Repetition is key to the way newspapers operate and, because they are serials, is encoded into their DNA.
All serials create a sort of contract between publisher and reader: publishers attempt to anticipate the demands of their readers by giving them more of what they have already demonstrated they want; readers repeatedly spend their money on the understanding that they will not be disappointed. Each issue of a newspaper attempts to narrate the present, assimilating events into a set of pre-existing structures that assert the individual publication’s identity.
In other words, the single issue does not exist in isolation, but re-presents, through its form, the issues that precede it. Newspapers might be oriented towards the present and contemporary, but they do so by establishing continuity with the past and promising it into the future."

I had the pleasure to work with Jim on the Nineteenth Century Serials Edition project and it was fascinating to receive his insights on this day.

Value and the Newspapers

Here is the text of my short talk I gave to end the expert seminar.

The Welsh Newspapers Online is an excellent interface and resource. So my query is - What does it deliver to us that shows its tangible values to the community of beneficiaries?

When I think about Value I want to consider this from a few perspectives that can be balanced to find a holistic overview of what has been achieved:

The benefits to us as a research community – our ability to ask research questions and to engage with the materials in fresh ways. But in some ways this efficiency and effectiveness argument is now very much a lowest common denominator for digitisation projects – how do we move beyond the efficacy argument to deeper more resilient benefits that answer the “so what” questions of wider public concerns.

The benefits this innovative opportunity provides in terms of the ability to not just mine the

content, but to genuinely generate meaning and understanding that is fresh and will appeal to a much wider constituency than just the current deeply committed research community. The planned opening of the API to the Welsh Newspapers Online will deliver real innovative use of the data and by opening up the data it allows the community to have a stake in the data not just a web front end. It also allows for the opening of mobile platforms to access this information, anywhere, anytime…

And so as we reach out to refresh the audience for these materials we consider the community and social benefits of the newspaper collection online. These materials could be used in schools and from perspectives of local history, family history and diaspora interests of course. When I did the original strategy consultancy for Andrew Green's vision of the Theatre of Memory all those years ago we identified a huge number and range of communities that could be served by the NLW’s collections – drama, music, poetry, sport, religion, science, engineering, food and language to name just a few. There are opportunities to solidify a sense of place and time and a personalized narrative and history reflected in the national and local stories contained in the newspapers.

And let’s not forget the economic value of this resource being free at the point of use for everyone, everywhere. I cannot emphasise how valuable these cultural resources are to enable the Small Smart Countries agenda. This has benefited places like Singapore so much for instance and is referenced in the National Library of Scotland's Thriving or Surviving strategic report. The digital allows smaller collections to compete on a more equal footing with more monolithic collections. The folks at the National Library of Australia have a huge amount of traffic and attention to their newspaper collections because it is free and they claim also that the British Library’s charging mechanism for newspapers is driving users their way.

The public want content – where they are, when they want it and are agnostic about the source. If we want their attention and thus their support then we have to get our data to them with as little friction as possible. We need demonstrable attention and engagement from our communities as a means of driving fundraising from individuals and foundations.

So when we trade in digital content it is not just a straight line commercial ROI but we also trade in intangible benefits such a national pride, smarter better informed communities and pushing technological leading edges that help us to build a strong economy and improve the quality of life for our citizens.

In short, when I look at newspaper digitisation the success is in a threefold relationship between having enough high quality content, having an excellent infrastructure to hold it and engaging with a wide audience of users.

I believe the NLW with this newspaper project has got the balance right – it’s like the thought experiment I use when thinking about digital resources: is the value in the wine, the glass or the drinking?
Clearly all three have to exist and balancing them is very difficult.

So, I hope this evening we will raise a glass in celebration of this new, innovative and FREE newspaper resource. And, as we do, we can consider the quality of the wine, the joy of the drinking and that unsung hero, the glass.

Let’s applaud our friends and colleagues at the National Library of Wales for this achievement.

A last note on a personal hero

The launch of the Welsh Newspapers Online also saw somewhat of a last hurrah for the outgoing Librarian of the NLW, Andrew Green, who has now retired. Andrew is a very modest man and probably will not thank me for relating this, but I consider him the most passionate, clever, kind, thoughtful and visionary national librarian I have worked with in the last 15 years.

He has the undying adoration of his team at NLW and I have found him an astoundingly supportive person to work with. We sat on the Legal Deposit Advisory Panel together and I have been commissioned to do various consultancy gigs at NLW plus I have always been happy to get advice and support for my various endeavours from Andrew and the NLW team.

Andrew has a deep passion for libraries and for Welsh culture and heritage, but he also has a strong strategic sensibility and pragmatic understanding that has enabled him to work some real magic at the NLW and particularly in their digital offerings. It is no accident that the NLW is the only national library to have a Chair in Digital Collections...


The National Library of Wales published 6 new titles on the Welsh Newspaper Online Website as of 1st July 2013. Press release

These titles include:

Cambrian News 1860 -1910
Cambrian 1804-1910
Cardiff Times 1858 - 1910
Monmouthshire Merlin 1829 - 1884
South Wales Daily Post 1893 -1900

Weekly Mail 1879-1910

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