Archive on 4 – Domesday Reloaded

The BBC’s Domesday Project is reborn on-line after 25 years.

I remember when this project promised to be the multi-media future of archives, libraries, interactive histories. I also remember, even as a schoolboy, thinking the technology was not right, was not ready, was too expensive and would become quickly obsolete.

In time for the 900th anniversary of William the Conqueror’s register of oppression through taxes, the BBC aimed to chronicle life in 1980’s Britain, based not on land rights and livestock, but photographs and written accounts submitted by ordinary people…

Ambitious beyond most people’s understanding, the BBC received more than a million contributions and the electronic version was released commercially. The tie-in TV game-show Domesday Detectives helped promote the venture. Despite this success, the project ultimately failed. Or so we thought.

Domesday for the project came not in war, famine or divine intervention, but technical obsolescence. Domesday was released on two Laserdiscs – the cutting edge of video storage in a before CD-ROM and DVD. You a BBC Master micro-computer running the custom software to access the Domesday discs on a Laserdisc player. The whole set-up cost almost £5,000 putting it out of reach, not just of ordinary people, but most schools and libraries. Less than 1,000 Domesday systems were sold nationwide.

Laserdisc itself was a fantastic technology for displaying video at near-film quality, streets ahead of grubby VHS-tape. Cost of the players and availability of the discs meant it never took off in Britain in the way it did in some territories of the world (primarily as a rental market for movies). It sank beneath the tide of cheap VHS players and tapes, even within the education market.

But it rises like the Phoenix. Now, after a year of extracting, copying and indexing, the BBC is making the contents of the “community disc” available on the internet, righting one of the project’s great wrongs, that it was largely inaccessible to ordinary people. The Internet has made technically possible all those things the project set-out to achieve.

It wasn’t an easy process. In order to create an interactive library, the Laserdisc format was bent entirely out of shape to accommodate the data. It’s a player, not a computer. None of the images was stored in recognisable digital formats. Pre-digital cameras, analogue photographs and maps were stored as individual, high-resolution video frames, without compression. The on-screen menu system moved physical play-back heads on the Laserdisc player to each of the 50,000 stills. Whilst the text articles were created in a digital format, the thousands of pages of text had to be encoded and stored on one of the Laserdisc’s spare audio tracks.

Now, the Reloaded project aims to recover Domesday’s original mission. 21st century users are encouraged to update the archive by adding their own photographs and written insights, through the website and using a standard web-browser, uploading new text and digital images. Previously, contributing meant good-old sneaker-net, physically posting floppy-discs and photos to the BBC team.

The revised Domesday archive will be closed to new contributions in November 2011, at which time it transfers to The National Archives. I don’t know what the NA will do with it, but it seems to me there is an opportunity to keep this going as an inexpensive community-moderated project, perhaps involving the UK’s universities to continue growing and developing the archive’s depth and capabilities.

As it states on the BBC site, “future generations will be able to access this unique snapshot of life in Britain online for as long as the internet keeps working…” which to me also means incremental update and migration through future generations of technology.

To support the launch, Radio 4 is broadcasting a selection of programmes focusing on the rise, fall and rehabilitation of BBC Domesday, including a special edition of Archive on 4. Later in the year, a series will compare the data gathered through Domesday Reloaded with the original data, to explore how Britain has changed.

For me, this is one of those technical triumphs, a re-birth from the ashes that re-affirms my faith in technology. AJS

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