Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Visit to library always a real delight, even in digital age

How the Belfast Telegraph reported this historic occasion on Monday 27th January 1942.
How the Belfast Telegraph reported this historic occasion on Monday 27th January 1942.

Readers often inquire about the Belfast Telegraph archives and what they contain. Pretty much all human life is in there, I usually say.

But, in truth, seen in purely visual terms, the physical archive isn't much to look at.

Zillions of newspaper clippings, many yellowing, contained in brown paper files stacked row upon row in shelves a couple of metres high.

There are lines and lines of them and, indeed, only a few people have expert knowledge of where to find material.

There is, of course, the required fire sprinkler system in the library, so many of the shelves are protected by plastic curtains that can be folded back for ease of use.

In theory the files are organised along a precise system, and that still holds true enough. But the vagaries of changes in personnel and library practices down through the years – not to mention the personal filing choices of some fairly colourful newspaper characters – has meant a certain, well, individuality to some of the categorisation.

As with the clippings, a vast collection of photographs, some pre-war and yellowing, some retaining all their full colour and glory, can be found in featureless brown files. Some of the most vivid images of Northern Ireland events of the 20th century are filed this way.

What it doesn't contain is old photographs dating back to the days of glass photographic plates, including images of the Titanic. The plates were incredibly bulky and tricky to store and were sent on permanent loan to local museums.

Some were printed up and displayed for generations of museum-goers. The digital legacy of this can still be seen, for example at the 'Belfast Telegraph Collection' on the National Museums of Northern Ireland's website – www.nmni.com.

So the really old stuff is no longer in the Belfast Telegraph building, but the current library does contain tens of thousands of images of everything from after the glass plate era: quaint 1920s town centres, fashionable couples on Edwardian seafronts, the Belfast Blitz, long-haired 1960s pop stars and, of course, a long and bloody collection of Troubles photographs.

From the early-1990s, when the Belfast Telegraph became the first newspaper in Ireland to install an ultra-modern picture desk, everything is in digital form. About a decade after that a modern digital content management and archive system was installed and so every story, photo, page and edition published in the past 15 years or so has been digitally stored.

Reporters and editors – and others requesting access – can inspect the modern archive with a few keyboard strokes and call up each and every published story and image.

In practice, due to some technical errors back in the Noughties, there are some gaps. But, generally, the digital archive is very complete. What is required is the digitisation of the entire physical cuttings and photographic archive, dating back to the early-20th century. This would yield a treasure trove of social, political and family history and would be an invaluable resource for the people of Northern Ireland.

In the old days the librarians didn't just 'clip' the Telegraph, but all the local papers and also articles about Northern Ireland carried in the UK nationals.

Alas, it would also be ruinously expensive to scan and catalogue the hundreds of thousands of clippings in the "morgue" (as reporters used to refer to the library). It may be feasible at some stage to digitise existing microfilm and also the rest of the picture collection, which has been partly digitised.

Such a project – which could be applied to any local newspaper library – would be less intimidating in scope and scale than digitising all the clippings, but it would at least be achievable and would preserve its priceless contents for posterity.

BTreaderseditor@gmail.com Twitter: @BelTelReadersEd

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