The National Library has received $1 million from the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation to support the digitisation of out-of-copyright editions of The Sydney Morning Herald from its inception in 1831 to 1954.

Library Director-General Jan Fullerton said the contribution would vastly improve access for all Australians to one of the nation's most valuable research resources on history and culture.

"This generous gesture recognises both the importance of the Library's newspaper digitisation program and the significance of The Sydney Morning Herald as a source of crucial information which enables Australians to discover and understand their story," she said.

Digitising The Sydney Morning Herald is part of a nationwide collaborative effort, coordinated by the Library, to provide free online access to a major daily newspaper from each state and territory, from the first newspaper published in 1803 through to 1954.

The more than $8 million newspaper digitisation program, involving millions of pages of content, began this year. The Herald project will cost an additional $1.7million, with $700,000 contributed by the Library, and is expected to be completed in 2009.

Ms Fullerton said, "The Library has always hoped to include The Sydney Morning Herald in the newspaper digitisation program because of its importance to the nation.

"This significant contribution from the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation will allow the Library to commission the microfilming of the Herald and create digital data from the microfilm. The result will be fully text-searchable files, allowing researchers to seek information by subject, name or date."

The Sydney Morning Herald began life as the weekly Sydney Herald on 18 April 1831. It cost seven pence, consisted of just four pages and only 750 copies were printed. By the time of Federation, the Herald was a Sydney institution and much cheaper, with 16 pages costing just a penny. It is the oldest continuously published newspaper in the country.

In making the contribution, the directors of the Foundation noted that December 2009 would mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sir Vincent Fairfax, founder of the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation. Sir Vincent was a great-grandson of John Fairfax, the first Fairfax proprietor of The Sydney Morning Herald.

Newspapers are an unparalleled record of the social, political, economic and cultural issues of the day and this is reflected not only in the written articles but also in the images, advertisements and even the headlines and layout of the newspaper itself.

Handling broadsheet-sized bound volumes of fragile paper or miles of microfilm makes retrieval of information difficult, especially as newspapers are minimally indexed. Digitisation provides a preservation solution as well as making the material highly accessible.

Other titles in the digitisation program include: The Sydney Gazette; The Maitland Mercury; The Argus; The Courier-Mail; The Hobart Town Gazette; The Advertiser; and The West Australian.

For more information about the program, visit http://www.nla.gov.au/ndp