"It's an absolute fact. The history of the newspaper publishing industry is the history of failure," says Ed King, the charismatic head of the British Library's newspaper collection. King paints a bleak picture – but he is overseeing the library's ambitious attempt to make millions of pages of yesterday's chip paper available online for the first time. This, he claims, could give "short-lived, ephemeral titles" a second birth.

The library is one year into its plan to digitise 40m news pages from its vast 750m collection, housed in Colindale, north London. This autumn, the library will reinvent its cavernous vaults as a website, where amateur genealogists and eager historians will be able to browse 19th-century newsprint from their home computer.

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