Donald Trelford On The Press

It's time to stop 300 years of newspapers turning into confetti

Among London's sprawling northern suburbs, not far from the police station where Lord Levy was arrested last week, lies one of the most important information resources in the world. The Colindale collection, part of the British Library, contains 52,000 separate titles from newspapers, journals and magazines going back to the 17th century, mostly from Britain, but also from the United States and Europe - anything from The Vatican Today to the Falmouth Packet to freesheets handed out on Bromley High Street. They occupy 48 kilometres of shelving space. There are 13,000 new additions every month.

Unfortunately, this invaluable collection is at risk. It is stored in a 70-year-old warehouse that lacks modern preservation techniques. The acidic newsprint is degrading - "It's like sweeping up confetti," said an official. The library was set up early in the 19th century when the British Museum donated some private newspaper collections. Then came the Stamp Act of 1825, which required all titles to be registered. Around the middle of the century a legal obligation was imposed on all newspaper owners to deposit a copy of every edition at Colindale.

The resulting 750 million pages form a national soap opera, an illustrated history of Britain over centuries, a treasure trove of information for researchers in many academic fields. The advertisements can offer as many revealing glimpses into the details, style and manners of daily life as the news columns.

The possible uses of this material are manifold. They can be used by historians and for children's education. Local communities can learn about their past. Family histories can be pursued.

The British newspaper industry should rejoice that its heritage has been preserved in this way - at no cost to them. Few individual press groups have preserved their own past - The Times, Associated Newspapers and more recently the Guardian/Observer are exceptions. The industry, regional as well as national, has a clear obligation to play its part, not only in preserving this collection but in exploiting its massive potential.

The internet may have arrived just in time, before the ageing pages wither, to resurrect the collection in a form that makes it accessible to millions. Programmes are already in place to digitise the material. The National Science Foundation in the United States has given £2m that will convert about two million pages (the cost is roughly a pound a page). The Higher Education Funding Council is also paying for the digitisation of two million pages up to the end of the 19th century. But this is only a fraction of the total needed. It would cost £50m pounds to digitise material up to the end of the last century.

But this shouldn't be viewed as another sad case of a great British institution crumbling into financial crisis and decay. The potential value of exploiting this resource, both cultural and commercial, must be enormous. But it needs some big thinking and entrepreneurial drive to get the project moving forward. Names like Bill Gates and Google come to mind. But the newspaper industry itself has an obligation to become directly involved in a scheme that could provide it with some payback for itself if it is able to put all its own files online for researchers.

Who knows? For newspaper owners, the past could turn out to be the future's greatest asset.

Donald Trelford was editor of 'The Observer' from 1975-93. Stephen Glover returns next week

A question of not following the blogs

There was something discomforting to me - and, I suspect, to other journalists of my generation - about John Humphrys's persistent questioning of John Prescott about his alleged love affairs (though, come to think of it, Humphrys is from the same generation himself).

I remember being interviewed some years ago about the degree of privacy to which ministers of the Crown were entitled. A fellow editor (once of this parish) argued that any person who offered himself for public office must be prepared for people to know everything about him; after all, if they lied about their private lives, they might lie about anything. I said then that I thought this was a profoundly uncivilised attitude, and I think so still.

What bugged me about the Prescott interview, however, was not the lack of respect for the office of Deputy Prime Minister (the incumbent has probably forfeited that already), but the fact that the questions were evidently regarded as legitimate because they were following up some rumours on a blog. But the blog had produced no evidence that would justify a public-service broadcaster - or a newspaper, for that matter - treating the rumours seriously. Prescott tried to say that, but, as so often, the words didn't come out in the right order or with sufficient authority to demolish this odious line of questioning.

It seems a dangerous precedent for traditional media to lower their standards to those of less accountable outlets online.

The News of the World may not have published names with its "gay footballer" allegations but, when a website claimed they referred to Ashley Cole, the England full-back extracted damages from News International.

If we go down the road of treating unsubstantiated online comment with such respect, then we run the risk of the less scrupulous journalists setting up their own anonymous blogs, writing up stories they are not quite sure about, and then quoting their own phoney blog as the source.

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