The State of Parliamentary Papers Online

17 February 2016 Comment

Like historic newspapers, parliamentary papers provide a fertile hunting ground for scholars from all kinds of disciplinary angles. The nature of the questions, laws and debates recorded in such papers structure so much of a country's life - they are an obvious source to explore to understand a nation.

But so far there has been little attempt to examine parliamentary papers at a cross-national level. A few examples have been located. Digging into Linked Parliamentary Data (http://dilipad.history.ac.uk/) allows cross searching between British, Dutch and Canadian papers, while the Czechs and Slovaks have also build a common portal (http://www.nrsr.sk/dl/?lang=en)

Expanding the transnational possibilities for parliamentary papers has enormous scholarly potential. It would allow, for example, researchers to trace how laws in one country may have influenced another (eg how were laws about female suffrage discussed across Europe), or different perspectives on common events (eg how did Parliaments discuss the run up to the Second World War)

These possibilities led Europeana to undertake an initial survey of what was currently available. What is the extent of digitisation of Parliamentary Papers in Europe? Are they available online? Under what licencing conditions?

The final report is available here and a spreadsheet of the data collated is here, but some of its key findings are below.

  • Many nations have digitised significant quantities of their principal parliamentary debates
  • Beyond laws and debates in the main parliamentary chambers, parliamentary papers include a whole range of different genres of document (eg. session papers, committee reports, petitions, etc.). These are less likely to be digitised.
  • Additionally, there are regional parliaments that in some cases have also digitised their archives.
  • Digitisation is often executed in a way that fails to extracts maximum value from the papers. Eg. Papers are often presented as scans / pdfs without any optical character recognition. This rules out any full text searching and makes researchers dependent on often poor quality metadata.
  • The ability to undertake bulk download of the material is also very rare
  • There is very rarely an clear licence associated with the parliamentary papers. This also inhibits reuse for text mining, aggregation etc.
  • Some stand outs do exist though. For example, a handful of states also offer their data in other formats - html, epub or txt files (France, Italy, Slovenia, Sweden). The Netherlands offers the whole data set for download. And for its more recent parliamentary activity Italy has done some groundbreaking work in offering parliamentary resources as open linked data.