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The storage void of The British Library national newspaper building at Boston Spa in West Yorkshire. Image courtesy of The British Library 

Historians and computer scientists unite for £9.2m project which will revolutionise research

Historians and computer scientists are set to collaborate to analyse millions of pages of documents as part of a major new research project which will shed new light on the impact of mechanisation on the lives of ordinary people.

The £9.2m study is one of the biggest and most ambitious humanities and science research initiatives ever to launch in the UK, and will transform how researchers can access and understand digitised historic collections in the future.

The five year project, funded by the UKRI's Strategic Priorities Fund Initial research plans involves scientists from The Alan Turing Institute collaborating with curators and researchers to build new software to analyse data drawn initially from millions of pages of out-of-copyright newspaper collections from within the archive in the British Library’s National Newspaper Building, and from other digitised historical collections, most notably government collected data, such as the census and registration of births, marriages and deaths.

The research team includes the University of Exeter’s Professor Jon Lawrence (History), who will be working alongside curators, data scientists, historians, geographers and computational linguists from the Alan Turing Institute, the British Library, the Universities of East Anglia, Cambridge and Queen Mary University of London. Together they will develop new methods in data science and artificial intelligence that can be applied to historical resources, producing tools and software to integrate the analysis of digitised collections at scale for the first time.

The project, called ‘Living with Machines’ will focus on the century following the first Industrial Revolution, and the changes brought about by the advance of technology across all aspects of society. The research team will track societal and cultural change in new ways during this transformative period in British history.

Professor Lawrence said: “This project will allow the development of new research methods which will put the lives of ordinary people centre-stage. We will analyse huge amounts of data to see how attitudes to machines and mechanisation changed during the nineteenth century. We can then see if this gives useful context for the present-day debates about the future of work, prompted by the social change caused by the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’ of artificial intelligence and robotics.

“Analysing such huge amounts of data could help present-day researchers and policy-makers to understand public attitudes towards new technologies such as autonomous vehicles or the use of artificial intelligence and robotics in everyday activities.”

Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library, said: “We are delighted to be awarded this funding to embark on an ambitious programme of research with our colleagues from the Alan Turing Institute and from partner universities. By opening up our unrivalled collections to this unique collaboration between historians and data scientists, we hope to not only aid researchers and communities in their understanding of our shared past, but to pave the way towards revolutionising the future of historical research”

Date: 19 December 2018

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