Robot Helps University Digitise 300 Years Of Parliamentary Records

By David Prudames | 22 November 2004
Shows a photograph of a woman operating a vast robotic scanner. At the front end of it there is an open book next to a computer screen on which there are scanned pages.

Digital Parliament. Thanks to robot technology, records dating back to the 18th century will soon be online. Courtesy Steve Shrimpton, University of Southampton.

They help build our cars, we use them to explore neighbouring planets and some can even see them helping around the home in years to come, but the latest sphere of human influence to be invaded by robots… is the historic archive.

An automatic scanning robot is currently working on behalf of the University of Southampton, where staff are in the process of putting 300 years of history online.

Joined by a consortium of researchers and academic libraries, the university is leading a project to digitise all surviving 18th century parliamentary papers and bills.

The £1.4 million project has been funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), and will eventually result in a comprehensive web archive for history students all over the world to access from wherever they are.

Shows an engraving of William Pitt the Younger addressing Parliament.

William Pitt (the Younger) addresses the House of Commons, 1793. Source Karl Anton Hickel. Courtesy Mary Evans Picture Library.

"In a sense, this project is a case study in automation," explained Simon Brackenbury, Digital Library and Imaging Projects Manager at the University of Southampton.

"The robotic scanner works at high volume and is enabling us to put together large amounts of information rather than just hand-crafting small collections of material. In this way we are breathing life into historical documents, giving unparalleled access to previously inaccessible parliamentary material."

Weighing in at 1000 kilograms (one tonne) and being about the same size as a small Transit van, a number of windows had to be removed as the digitising robot was hoisted into the university’s Hartley Library using a crane.

The machine uses lasers to detect page edges and is able to lift pages and flip them over automatically without damaging them thanks to a vacuum technique.

Shows a photograph of an open book, laid out inside the scanner.

Staff are aiming to scan at a rate of 1,000,000 pages of historical tomes every year. Courtesy Steve Shrimpton, University of Southampton.

With historical, potentially delicate documents, the emphasis is very much on their being handled sensitively, yet amazingly the scanner is able to process around 600 pages an hour.

"This world-class scanning facility," added Simon Brackenbury, "will without doubt greatly enhance the sector’s ability to make millions of pages of historic printed research records accessible as a full text searchable Internet resource cost-effectively and in the space of several years rather than decades."

Documents currently being scanned have been drawn from the Ford Collection of British Official Publications held at the University of Southampton and from Cambridge University Library.

Including official documents and parliamentary journals, the material dates back to the 18th century and takes in the beginning of the anti-slavery movement, the formation of British power in India and the deportation of convicts to Australia.

Shows a digital scan of a page from a House of Commons journal.

Once scanned, the documents and journals will be catalogued and loaded into a vast online database. Courtesy University of Southampton.

In digitising the archive, the university team is not only creating a permanent record of one of the most eventful periods in British history, but securing the future of the parliamentary documents that survived the House of Commons fire in 1834.

It is hoped that this current project will be complete and live on the web by some time in Spring 2005, after which the university is hoping to take on further digitisation work.

This pioneering scanning technology has never been used in the UK before and the institution will become something of a national centre for projects of this kind.

At the moment staff are collaborating closely with their counterparts at the University Stanford in the USA, which took delivery of the first robotic scanner a year ago.

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