the london times and yesterdays news

Because you are reading this column in this newspaper, it is a reasonable assumption that you are the kind of person who likes to read newspapers.

Because you are reading this column in this newspaper, it is a reasonable assumption that you are the kind of person who likes to read newspapers.

It also follows that you might be very interested by what the London Times has done with its internet website.

What it has done is, quite simply, amazing. It has put up digitally scanned, fully searchable replicas of every one of its newspaper editions from 1789 to 1985 — and all, for the moment at least, are free of charge.

You can check this out by going to timesonline.co.uk, and clicking on the “Archives” link there.

You will be put through a quick registration procedure (you will have to supply an e-mail address for confirmation of your identity) and then directed to the archive collection.

Once in, you will have a number of search or browsing choices.

First, you can enter a range of start and stop dates and some keywords to search for. (I used “Klondike” and got some interesting historical material, like a Christmas-day 1897, story relating Charles Ogilvie’s “return to civilization” and a summary of developments in the early stage of the gold rush.)

Second, you can select any given day and then browse the edition for that day (I chose to review the edition for August 14, 1908, and stumbled on a very amusing section all about the discomfort, noise and general offensiveness of the new-fangled automotive transportation then just starting to appear on the streets of London).

Thirdly, you can browse by “topics” (“war and revolution,” “crime,” “sport,” and so on), though the range of possibilities provided is actually pretty lame and obviously still a work in progress.

The interface you are given to work with is functional, though not without faults.

Basically, when you conduct a keyword search, you are presented with a list of “hits” on that keyword, together with an indication of the date of the relevant edition, and a small graphic of the page of the edition that contains your story.

You can click on a link that interests you and be taken to the relevant page.

From there, you can use your mouse to navigate around the page.

There is also a little widget on the screen that allows you to zoom in and out on the page, or move to full-page view.

This little navigation widget sits on top of your field of view and can be a minor annoyance, as you have to drag it from one place to another to uncover the text beneath it.

On the whole, the site is well laid out and quick and easy to get used to — though also sometimes rather slow to load.

The London Times is one of the oldest, most distinguished newspapers in the history of the medium, and having this astonishing amount of historical data at your fingertips is a little awe-inspiring — and, for people like me, at least, addictive.

Of course, online digital archives of newspapers are no longer uncommon.

For instance, you can recover some quite interesting and valuable archival material (much of it with a strong Canadian-history bent) at paperofrecord.com, which has a similar resource of scanned, searchable replicas of old newspapers from around the world.

That site, though, does not have the same degree of database sophistication as the Times site, and does not operate at the same compendious scale.

I am certain that I, for one, am likely to lay waste to a good number of recreational and writing-related hours mining the gems out of this Times archive.

And, though I have not been able to find out when, if and how much the Times is likely to charge after this current period of free trial expires, I am likely to buy a subscription to the service, too, when the time comes.

Certainly, an effort of this size and complexity must have cost the London Times a good deal of money, and I am not about to begrudge it some fair return on the investment.

What the Times has done — and what, with any luck, other newspapers of similar longevity and quality will do, too — is open up a whole new value proposition for their enterprise.

In a world where paper-based news publications are either dying out or migrating to the web, some long-established publications will have a commercial advantage in marketing the historical importance of their product, over and above its value as news of the day.

The value of the archives — for which, in my judgment, newspapers have every right to charge fair market value — may be just the financial cash cow they need to continue operating as purveyors of contemporary news.

Because yesterday’s news sooner or later turns into the stuff of history and, as such, stuff we are ready to pay for again.

So try it out. Even if you don’t agree that this kind of information should have cash value, you can enjoy it, at least for now, for nothing at all.

 Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.