500M words, mostly about nothing

Wonders will never cease…Hansard is now digitised…all 500M words of it.

Since Parliament had its very first debate in the mid-19th century, MPs have uttered about 500 million words in the debating chamber.

Nearly every one of those words has been transcribed verbatim and bound into volumes called Hansard, after Thomas Curson Hansard, the first official printer in the UK Parliament.

And this week, as Hansard celebrates its 150th anniversary, they will be published online in their entirety.

The occasion will also be marked by an exhibition of Hansard’s great moments, a public debate, and a tribute in the House.

Ahead of the anniversary, the Clerk of the House David Wilson began investigating the possibility of a complete digital record of the debates.

In an extraordinary stroke of luck, much of the work had already been done without him knowing. The University of California digitised every Hansard volume from 1867 to 1985, as part of Google’s ambitious attempt to scan every book in the world.

This included the painstaking task of manually scanning every page of the volumes. Because many of the older volumes are fragile, it was done with a high-definition camera while a Google employee carefully turned the pages.

One of the Hansard project’s co-ordinators, Peter Riches, said that was a huge relief.

“It was 723 volumes at about 1000 pages each, so it’s quite a big project, and quite expensive. And someone has to physically do it.”

Hansard staff were left to fill in the gaps in the record. The debates from 1987 were scraped from word processing files and Parliament’s website.

More difficult was finding an accurate account of the debates between 1854 and 1867, before Hansard was created. During this period the only record was provided by the press, and reporting was politicised and patchy.

“If the newspaper didn’t like the members, they just didn’t report them,” Riches said.

Nevertheless, five volumes of Hansard have been patched together from newspaper reports over these 13 years.

Riches said that the full, digitised Hansard was, in a way, an oral history of New Zealand. It traced the country through women’s suffrage, the Great Depression, world wars, homosexual law reform, and the anti-nuclear changes, and natural disasters.

“It’s hard to imagine any event in New Zealand’s history of any significance that hasn’t been discussed in some way in the House,” Riches said.

“So it’s quite a good record of what’s happening at any point in time over the course of our history, or at least since Parliament first sat.”

So, to celebrate they are going to create even more words to record. And politicians wonder why no one cares what they have to say.

• 163 years of Parliamentary debates
• 150 years of official transcripts
• 723 volumes
• 750,000 pages
• 500,000,000 words

Whaleoil is of course also immortalised in Hansard.  I see David Parker had a bit of a go quite recently, as he once again used Parliamentary privilege to make statements about Whaleoil that are patently incorrect.

There was a bit of a lull before that.  The next most recent occurrence being Clare Curran stating that the Harmful Digital Communications Bill was needed to deal with blogs like these.

I hope people can see the irony.

But yes, happy birthday Hansard.   And may you record “Whale Oil” and “Cameron Slater” many more times.



-NZ Herald

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