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June 15th 2009 print

Philippa Martyr

Online newspapers

The project aims to digitise the vast newspaper archival resources in every state, and create a searchable database which will, for the first time, open up thousands of previously-forgotten news items to historical researchers.

On 25 July 2008 the National Library of Australia’s Australian Newspapers beta service was launched to the public. As with the original Oxford English Dictionary, the culture-building potential of the everyday obsessive-compulsive is once more acknowledged. 

As anyone who has read Simon Winchester’s marvellous The Surgeon of Crowthorne knows, the great Dictionary would never have taken shape were it not for the efforts of a large number of slightly unbalanced people, who nonetheless were capable of doing great things once pointed in the right direction. The NLA Australian Newspapers beta service offers just such a modern-day opportunity. 

The project aims to digitise the vast newspaper archival resources in every state, and create a searchable database which will, for the first time, open up thousands of previously-forgotten news items to historical researchers. Initially all the existing microform newspaper texts were scanned, using Optical Character Recognition (OCR). But this does not produce a completely accurate text, so the beta database allows and encourages members of the public to correct the texts on-line.  

Apparently, users have already corrected over 2 million lines of electronic text in over 100,000 articles; over 46,000 tags have been added to articles. It is the Wikipedia of historians, only far more accurate. 

For people like me, this is about as much fun as one can stand. I can’t stop myself – I look something up in the database, and the scanned image of the original newspaper appears before my eyes. But on the left of the screen is a text box with the garbled, poorly-reconstructed OCR text in it. Being one of nature’s proof-readers, my fingers start twitching, and before I know it, I’ve corrected an entire article and am hungry for more. 

Are you the kind of person who can’t look anything up in a dictionary because you get hopelessly sidetracked? The NLA Australian Newspapers beta site is the place for you. It’s much less obvious and much more constructive than playing Circle-the-Cat if you happen to be at work and wasting your employer’s time. 

The project also promises to revolutionise social history in Australia. I have always found newspaper archives to be hugely frustrating, because of the sheer amount of time needed to prowl through those tantalizing side columns of newsy bits, in which one finds the real nuggets of historical gold. 

Now with the database, a simple search already turns up the most amazing things. It would appear, for example, that the long-sustained claim that Fremantle Oval’s first AFL game was played in 1895 is not actually correct, as I’ve found a very lively and detailed account in the West Australian of Monday 12 June 1893 (p 2) of an AFL game played at Fremantle’s ‘home ground’, including an incompetent umpire and a crowd who yelled abuse more or less non-stop. 

It turned up because I did a search on ‘Fremantle Asylum’. I found that one set of goalposts on Fremantle’s home ground was referred to as the ‘Asylum goal’. This is of course a very useful piece of social history, as it helps to locate an institution in the cultural landscape. But a quick visit to a map confirmed my suspicions: the present-day Fremantle Oval is quite some distance from the Asylum, even allowing for the fact that the Asylum was one of the largest buildings in Fremantle, and that there would have been fewer buildings between the two sites. 

So was the match played on Fremantle Oval, or on Fremantle Park, which is right in front of the Asylum across the road, and would have provided a very clear ‘Asylum goal’ at which to aim? My researches continue. 

In the meantime, visit here  

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