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Digitising 630,000 newspaper pages – a first!

Newspapers are an invaluable source of knowledge. Their weekly or even daily overviews provide a better understanding of the past and the present. There are numerous newspapers available in paper form in Flanders, spread across various archives and libraries. But finding exactly what you’re looking for is not always an easy task! So, what if you could bring together thousands and thousands of printed newspapers and convert them on a large scale into a digital and searchable version? That's precisely what meemoo and Flanders Heritage Library, together with eight partners, are aiming to achieve.

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Duration July 2021 - December 2023

Source reference: photo by meemoo, licence: CC BY-SA

Newspaper digitisation with Picturae
Photo by meemoo, licence: CC BY-SA

Why the bulk digitisation of newspapers is urgent and meaningful

There is a huge number of newspapers available in paper form. Newspapers are printed every day, as they have been for many years. Daily and weekly newspapers report on all aspects of societal life, making it easy to follow trends or stay informed about the happenings in your region. In short, newspapers are a valuable historical source of information that is rarely found in other formats. So it's no surprise that digitised newspapers are the most commonly consulted source of heritage.

However, despite this content-related need, newspapers are surprisingly vulnerable. Newsprint was not made with eternity in mind. The fragile paper on which they are printed is susceptible to acidification: an unavoidable and irreversible process that eventually causes many newspapers to disintegrate – even despite good storage conditions! Newspapers from the 1850s to 1950s are particularly acidic. The combination of frequent consultation with poor paper quality means that Flemish newspaper heritage is at high risk of being lost. And that's why it’s so important that they are preserved digitally – as well as physically – for future generations. Many newspapers had no digital trace... until recently!

Extra useful? The digitised content in the GIVE newspapers project has been made machine-readable thanks to optical character recognition (OCR). This means that you can search the newspaper pages digitally, which is handy for researchers, students or simply curious minds.

A close collaboration

The GIVE newspapers project, Primeur, is the result of a collaboration between meemoo and Flanders Heritage Library – each bringing their own perspective and expertise. Flanders Heritage Library is a non-profit organisation that supports other organisations that manage library heritage collections, including newspapers, in Flanders and Brussels. In the GIVE project, they were responsible for inventorying, selecting, registering and packaging. One of meemoo’s core activities is mass digitisation, and we are therefore taking care of the digitisation, metadata processing, quality control and accessibility. Stronger together!

Primeur in figures

Counting the number of historical newspapers in Flemish heritage collections is difficult. But counting how many have been digitised in the GIVE newspapers project is much easier! Now that the catch-up phase is coming to an end, it’s time to take stock:

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Flanders Heritage Library selected these newspapers together with the eight collection managers. This selection process followed several criteria, with the most urgent cases taking priority:

  • Is it a newspaper?

  • Was the newspaper published in Flanders? (As an exception, newspapers published outside of Flanders but with a Flemish audience are also eligible.)

  • Has the newspaper not been digitised yet, even by another institution?

  • How vulnerable is the newspaper, e.g. how acidic is it?

  • How often is the newspaper used?

  • Does the managing organisation have the most complete ownership of the newspaper?

A mass digitisation project

A what-project? The name actually says it all. In a mass digitisation project, a large number of carriers from different locations and storage institutions are brought together and digitised in bulk.

This is particularly interesting because digitising on a small scale is not only very expensive, but also requires technical expertise that not all organisations possess. Consolidating materials is therefore both more efficient and more cost-effective. We are also aiming for a high and equal quality across all newspapers, and the project is resulting in an immediate boost in newspaper digitisation – never before in Flanders have so many copies been safeguarded for the future in a single effort. So it’s a remarkable catch-up initiative, but this is still just the tip of the iceberg: there are still millions of undigitised newspaper pages in Flemish archives. Flanders Heritage Library is mapping out the Flemish newspaper landscape in the online Belgian newspaper catalogue, Abraham.

A useful extra: OCR

If you search, so shall you find? That's not necessarily the case with digital newspapers. But newspapers do lend themselves well to the application of optical character recognition (OCR) – a technique within artificial intelligence that makes text machine-searchable. In this project, all digitised newspapers underwent OCR. This means the newspaper page is not just a simple image, but that you can also effectively search within the text. Learn more.

With materials from...

In the GIVE newspaper project, Primeur, you will find not only the major national titles, but also often lesser-known regional and local publications. Upon completion of this project, you will be able to admire newspapers from eight archives, universities and heritage libraries. You can already browse through an initial selection at totindetail.be.

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This project was made possible with support from the European Regional Development Fund and is part of the Flemish Government’s Resilience Recovery Plan.

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