The Graphic newspaper

How we make digital history

To provide access to our collections to as many people as possible, the Library started thinking about digitisation as far back as the late 1980s. But the first definable project was in 1993 when we digitised the Beowulf manuscript and saved it onto CD-ROM. Since then, some of our most iconic items, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and Leonardo Da Vinci's notebook have been digitised.

In 2003 we started on a coordinated programme to make many more of the 150 million items in our collections available to millions of people via the Internet. Since then, we've implemented a number of major large-scale digitisation projects. For example, we've digitised four million pages of pre-1900 papers, 8000 hours of sound recordings and a huge number of 19th century books.

The challenges

Digitising on such a massive scale brings a lot of challenges. For example, in digitising books and newspapers, the digital resources allow for a full text search, using Optical Character Recognition software. But older books and newspapers use different fonts, so we're members of a European programme, working with other institutions to research how to develop the software to cope with this.

One of the key challenges is making sure that we don't damage the items we're digitising - if you're working with a fourth century biblical manuscript, for example, you need to be very careful how you handle it.

The teams involved

Because of the different challenges we face, most teams in the Library can be involved in a digitisation project. Firstly, the curators play an important part in the selection process - deciding which items will meet users' needs. Then our Collection Care team will look at whether the items are suitable for digitisation - if they can physically stand up to the processes involved.

Once the process of digitisation starts, the Operations and Services teams become involved, transporting all the items from the storage areas to the digital studio. The recent digitisation of 19th century books involved around 80,000 items, so it had a huge impact on their work.

Our main aim is to provide wider access to the collections, so a member of our Web Services team will also investigate the best way of presenting the digital resources so that people can access them easily.


We're recognised as one of the world leaders in digitisation. The main reason for this is that we've been digitising different items for a long time. Because of the breadth of our collections, we've developed expertise in digitising everything from books and newspapers to sounds, maps, manuscripts and stamps. This means a number of other national libraries come to us to learn from our experience and to share best practice. For example, we started looking at digitising our historic newspapers in 2003. Because we've been looking at this for so long, the national libraries of the Netherlands and Australia have been working with us to learn from our experience. That's just one example of how we're regarded as pioneers in this area.