BBC Domesday Reloaded needs emulation to finish the job

Quattro Pro for DOS: an obsolete format at last?

Today marks the launch (timed to coincide with mass observation day) of BBC Domesday Reloaded, which both recycles the iconic 1986 BBC Domesday Project and provides a chance to capture a new snapshot of teenies-era UK. It’s brilliant to see Domesday making a comeback and the BBC deserve a lot of credit for revisiting this iconic multimedia resource.

Unfortunately my school didn’t contribute to BBC Domesday, but I had the chance to work with it as part of the CAMilEON Project in the late 90s. CAMiLEON was an offshoot from CEDARS, one of the first major investigations into tackling the problems of digital obsolescence. CAMiLEON was tasked with exploring emulation as a preservation strategy. At that time there was a lot of scepticism about emulation and despite high profile supporters such as Jeff Rothenberg, many felt it was an arcane technical approach that didn’t work and had no application in the library or archive sector. Of course, the wonderful world of computer science had been busily developing and applying this technology for many years. Even the enthusiast community had embraced emulation to gain access to classic computer games. With CAMiLEON we wanted to illustrate that emulation could deliver some useful results for an organisation wanting to preserve digital content. Used in the right way it could even be a cost effective strategy and one that would be complimentary to other approaches.

Despite some challenges encountered along the way, I think we did a pretty reasonable job. This was in no small part due to the case study that examined BBC Domesday. We wanted to emulate something as challenging as Domesday to show that the approach really was viable. It also gave us a good hook to generate some publicity and get the message across. As it turned out, we were able to lend a good story and some media time to the launch of the Digital Preservation Coalition in the UK. We got some great press that helped get emulation and digital preservation on the agenda. On the downside, our Domesday emulation was a bespoke development and it didn’t back up some of our messages on the wide applicability of general emulation solutions to lots of digital resources.

Despite successfully emulating Domesday (in a tiny little office at the University of Leeds, as the BBC’s video describes…) the result was a slightly clunky prototype. Our funded objective was to explore the viability of emulation in digital preservation, not to revive Domesday for real users. Securing funding to develop our preservation experiment into a robust access system in a follow up activity proved difficult.

One of the attendees at our CAMiLEON/BBC Domesday launch day was Adrian Pierce. Adrian had also been working on Domesday and was developing a new software interface to the Domesday data. He gave a demo in a corner of the room and it was impressive stuff, if lacking in flashy design. Adrian had thought hard about how to make best use of the Community Disc data, and present it in a way that made navigation easier than the innovative but dated BBC Micro led interface from 1986. The attendees in Leeds on that day were a cross section of new and old faces from the world of Domesday and it was unsurprising that Domesday soon resurfaced in a different form not long after. The combination of Adrian’s new interface, high quality re-digitised Domesday images from the original film, courtesy of Andy Finney from the BBC (who had been one of the technical experts behind the original Domesday and has an excellent Domesday site here), and support from the National Archives brought Domesday back via the website (there’s a screenshot in this paper by Jeffrey Darlington which shows the very nice layout Adrian devised). Some poor technology choices and the sad death of Adrian unfortunately made this phase of BBC Domesday almost as short lived as the original however, and the website is no longer live.

A flurry of enthusiast effort in recent years raised the possibility of a community driven revival of Domesday but unfortunately critical mass wasn’t quite reached and, as so often happens with unfunded efforts, the participants simply didn’t have enough spare time to make it happen. A great pity.

In the context of that patchy history, today’s revival of the BBC Domesday Project is to be applauded. I was keen to try it out, but after a few minutes of browsing and searching I have to admit to being a little underwhelmed. A number of the aspects of the original BBC Micro interface, that made browsing the Domesday data so enjoyable, haven’t translated well to the new BBC web interface. Whenever I’ve returned to BBC Domesday Reloaded whilst writing this blog post I’ve repeatedly clicked on the maps, only to find that few clicks result in a satisfying scroll or zoom. Navigating backwards seems to be poorly supported and the extra resolution and display space of a modern computer (compared with the original Domesday) hasn’t been exploited as well as in Adrian’s interface. It is a little ironic that the re-launched version has little of the innovation of the original, which was so far ahead of its time (fantastic search capability, interactive GUI, information overlays, scrolling and zooming maps, virtual reality walkthroughs, and so on). The solution would of course be to expose the Domesday data so that others can interrogate it, develop new interfaces and mash up Domesday with other data. It would be great to see the BBC make this happen.

There are also some longevity questions about this latest Domesday reincarnation. The BBC Domesday Blog suggests that Reloaded will be open for new contributions until November before it will be passed to my colleagues at The National Archive for preservation. I hope this doesn’t mean that Domesday will again disappear from public view, but rather TNA will keep some form of website live. It should also not be forgotten that the BBC followed up Domesday with some lesser known interactive discs that really are a long way towards complete digital obsolesence. I’m ashamed to say that the MLA sector has not done a great preservation job so far. We must do better, and that means designing any new Domesday solutions with one eye on the future.

Of course, both Adrian Pierce’s Domesday revival and the BBC’s Reloaded have only been concerned with half of the original Domesday Resource: the Community Disc that was populated mainly by school children from across the UK. The National Disc has not been “reloaded” and presumably is not likely to be anytime soon. This is a real shame, particularly from a historical point of view. Some have argued (including members of the original 1986 BBC Domesday team) that the original interface is so dated that its not worth bothering with. Others have suggested that some of the National Disc data is archived elsewhere (for example the statistical data was sourced from the UK Data Archive), although much is actually unique to Domesday. There are of course some tricky intellectual property issues for the National Disc, and running an emulation might only be legal for those lucky enough to own an original set of Domesday discs. Challenges do remain, but an emulation solution would also easily run the Domesday followup discs without any programming of a new GUI.

For me it’s the innovative interface of the original Domesday that would be a real loss were an emulation solution not revived. That’s not to say that I am not keen on a fancy new interface to get better access to the Domesday data as well. Different preservation approaches can meet different needs. A core message from CAMiLEON.

BBC Domesday pointed the way for many of the modern methods that we now have to display, navigate, combine and understand digital data. It was in fact so ahead of its time that it could be argued it was destined to be a commercial failure from the beginning, regardless of the genius of Peter Armstrong and his original BBC Domesday team. A few years later and the outcome would have been very different, as Peter went on to demonstrate with BBC Domesday remains an incredible landmark in the UK’s fascinating computing history and one that we should not be happy to consign to the digital dustbin.

For more about BBC Domesday check out the array of programming the BBC has scheduled about Domesday over the next few days. Can’t wait!


Leave a Reply

Join the conversation