Announced by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), the project is funded by a £2 million grant from the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) and is designed primarily to be an educational resource.
The British Library's current archive contains more than 52,000 newspapers, most of which are in print and only accessible by visiting the library's reading rooms in north London.
"These historical newspapers are perhaps the single, most comprehensive resource for the study of 19th century British history," said Stuart Dempster, JISC programme manager.
"Traditionally students, teachers, lecturers and researchers have had to access these titles on microfilm, but from late 2006 many of these titles will be fully searchable and available on your desk top 24/7."
JISC will be working with education communities and news organisations throughout the summer to decide which publications will be digitised. A range of regional and national newspapers will be selected and could include the Morning Post, which published articles by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, and the Morning Chronicle where Charles Dickens once worked as a reporter.
The research team will have to address issues of how to index dense 19th century text and headlines not comparable to modern news structures. Such newspapers were often read all the way through, and were not designed to skim read.
Project organisers expect it will take around two years to digitise the newspaper pages from microfilm records. The archive is expected to be launched in September 2006, with a pilot scheme planned for early next year.
A number if similar initiatives are underway around the world, including the national digital Newspaper Programme in the US.
More news on dotJournalism:
Archive and kicking
New York Times digitises entire archive
Times fights legal threat to online archives
Web project to archive US newspapers back to the 17th Century
British Library: http://www.bl.uk
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