Cultural heritage as digital noise: nineteenth century newspapers in the digital archive

Johan Jarlbrink (Department of Culture and Media Studies, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden)
Pelle Snickars (Department of Culture and Media Studies, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Publication date: 9 October 2017



The purpose of this paper is to explore and analyze the digitized newspaper collection at the National Library of Sweden, focusing on cultural heritage as digital noise. In what specific ways are newspapers transformed in the digitization process? If the digitized document is not the same as the source document – is it still a historical record, or is it transformed into something else?


The authors have analyzed the XML files from Aftonbladet 1830 to 1862. The most frequent newspaper words not matching a high-quality references corpus were selected to zoom in on the noisiest part of the paper. The variety of the interpretations generated by optical character recognition (OCR) was examined, as well as texts generated by auto-segmentation. The authors have made a limited ethnographic study of the digitization process.


The research shows that the digital collection of Aftonbladet contains extreme amounts of noise: millions of misinterpreted words generated by OCR, and millions of texts re-edited by the auto-segmentation tool. How the tools work is mostly unknown to the staff involved in the digitization process? Sticking to any idea of a provenance chain is hence impossible, since many steps have been outsourced to unknown factors affecting the source document.


The detail examination of digitally transformed newspapers is valuable to scholars depending on newspaper databases in their research. The paper also highlights the fact that libraries outsourcing digitization processes run the risk of losing control over the quality of their collections.



Jarlbrink, J. and Snickars, P. (2017), "Cultural heritage as digital noise: nineteenth century newspapers in the digital archive", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 73 No. 6, pp. 1228-1243.

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