Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 23 November 2007
Heaven knows I don’t need another online distraction to add to Facebook, Radio 4 Listen Again and the Ipswich Town fanzine’s message board. But last week I found one that I know is going to consume hours and hours of my life: the Guardian and Observer Digital Archive, launched this month, which makes accessible online every issue of the Manchester Guardian (latterly without the Manchester) from 1821 to 1975 and every issue of the Observer from 1900 to 1975.
It’s fully searchable, really easy to browse – and completely addictive. Why, I was so engrossed last Saturday morning that I didn’t poke my favourite Facebook pokee (you know who you are) for two whole hours.
Seriously, though, it is an absolutely stunning achievement that is both a real service to serious historians and something that will enthral general readers. From a purely selfish point of view, it’s going to make it a lot easier to do the research for my lectures at City University – I teach two modules on the history of journalism – and for a couple of book projects I have under way. Much as I love the British Library Newspaper Library in Colindale, it’s three hours from home and one from work, and any alternative to microfiche is a blessed relief.
Not that the Guardian/Observer online archive is the first of its kind or even the biggest. The Times put its archive online four years ago. It has the advantage (for now at least) that you can get access to it for free via most public library websites if you are a member of the public library: you have to pay for access to the Guardian/Observer archive, although you can try it out for free for the rest of this month.
But by comparison with the Guardian/Observer site, the Times one is a bit clunky – and, well, the Times is the Times. For most of the past 150 years it has been the establishment’s paper of record – whereas the Manchester Guardian started as a voice for reform and has remained one, and the Observer has been of the centre-left since the 1940s. The Times is of course an indispensable historical source, but it is not always the best one, particularly if you want to know what liberals, socialists, trade unionists and feminists were thinking and doing.
Probably the most exciting project in this area, however, is the British Library’s massively ambitious plan to get all its newspaper collection digitised and online, which went live last month with more than 1 million pages from 19th-century British newspapers available free online to anyone from a UK further or higher education institution. I’ve not yet had a chance to try it out and the 19th century isn’t my speciality, but the Xmas vacation looms. In a couple of weeks I have a feeling I’ll be wondering what I ever saw in Facebook.
On a different matter entirely, I have been mightily entertained by the shenanigans that have split Respect, the George Galloway Trots-plus-Islamists party, in two. They started in the summer when Galloway, the party’s sole MP, picked a fight with the main Trot faction in Respect, the Socialist Workers Party, demanding that the Islamists be given greater prominence in the organisation – and ended last weekend with the farce of two competing Respect events being held simultaneously in different parts of London, a national conference at the University of Westminster (dominated by the SWP) and a rally (starring Galloway and his chums) near Liverpool Street station.
I always thought Respect was an alliance of (deeply unattractive) incompatibles and that it would all end in tears – and it’s gratifying to be proved right by the course of events. The question now is whether Galloway has retained sufficient support to make a serious challenge to Labour at the next general election in the new Poplar and Limehouse constituency, most of which covers the same area as the current Poplar and Canning Town constituency where Jim Fitzpatrick is MP.
Galloway currently represents the next-door constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow but is switching because Poplar and Limehouse has a greater concentration of Muslim voters he thinks he can attract with the help of assorted “community leaders” and Islamists. Hunch tells me he’s unlikely to win – but hunch told me he wouldn’t win Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005.
Whatever, it’s going to be some fight. There are quite a few Labour activists who consider the defeat of Galloway a higher priority than any other – and Tower Hamlets’ politics are more fractious (and volatile) than any other London borough’s. It won’t be as important to the national picture as, say, Worcester or Battersea, but, as long as Galloway stands, Poplar and Limehouse will certainly be top of my list of results to look out for next election night.