For a cure to cultural amnesia, tried and tested gardening tips or just a laugh at the past, try the National Library of Australia’s magnificent archive of digitised newspapers.

This amazing resource, launched mid-2008, allows full-text searching of 20 million Australian newspaper articles from the 1800s to the mid-1950s. The project is ongoing, with items and papers being added continuously, and by 2011 about 40 million articles will be available.

It’s like having a sort of reverse Google at your fingertips, enabling a plunge into the recesses of everyday Australian life long past. You can spend time reading contemporary reportage of epochal historical events — the Gallipoli landing, Great Depression, North Sydney’s last premiership — or pore over the minutiae of daily life as once it was. I’ve used it to research the lives and habits of my forebears via the social columns, brief notes of who was hosting who for dinner or adjourning where for holidays (they’re like yesteryear’s Facebook, only dignified). I’ve also unearthed old compost recipes for my vegetable garden, and found an excellent recipe for pavlova, as served to the Queen by the Burnie CWA in 1954.

A trawl through the digitised newsprint gives a fabulous insight into the concerns and troubles of our ancestors. Like the 1934 advertisement for Cramer’s Root Pills, which warned the biggest price paid for modern civilisation was not boom and bust economics, environmental degradation, nor even “talkies”, but constipation. Or alarmed letters to the editor over moral panics past — not least, of course, the awful shadow of Cold War doom cast by the spectre of women in pants.

The archive is also incredibly useful as an antidote to the “it wasn’t like this in the old days” crowd. There’s a visceral satisfaction to be had rebutting your uncle’s grumblings about, say, the state of modern youth, by running a few clippings off the inkjet covering the juvenile delinquency and adolescent “crime waves” of years gone by. There’s only about 2500 to choose, from “Juvenile Depravity” (The Advertiser, 1903), to “Youths Acted Like Dingo Pack” (The Argus, 1954 — that one really made uncle sit up; nothing like seeing your name in print for the first time).

But if historical research or comparative social studies aren’t your bent, there is still plenty of fun to be had laughing along at the optical character recognition engine’s misinterpretation of many common words, tossing up such classic headlines as “Urgent Moves to Prevent Sh-t in UN”, “Appeasement and Poo” and, my favourite, a report of Mr George Hamilton’s fourth in a series of 1912 speeches, “Our Boys and Girls, Their Powers and P-nis”. Once you’re done sniggering, you can register on the site and join the growing army of volunteers cleaning up the poor old search software’s clangers.

So whether you’re a serious researcher, curious dilettante or just the kind of person who likes looking up swear words in the dictionary, the NLA digital newspaper archive’s got something for you. Log on, and ramble back to a time when the internet was nothing more than a packet steamer departing Sydney for New Caledonia in April 1875. If the past truly is another country, this resource is a first-class conveyance.