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Digital Domesday book unlocked

A rich digital archive of British life in the 1980s has been brought back to life by researchers from the UK and the US.

BBC Micro was a popular computer in the 1980s

They have developed a way to access the information gathered by the BBC’s Domesday project which had been stored on outdated technology.

The project was developed by the BBC to create a computer-based, multimedia version of the Domesday Book, marking the 900th anniversary of the 1086 archive. But the snapshot of in the UK in the mid-1980s was stored on two virtually indestructible interactive video discs which could not be read by today’s computers.

Preserving the past
The team at Leeds University and the University of Michigan in the US say they have now found a way to access this rich digital archive.

They have developed software that emulates the obsolete Acorn Microcomputer system and the video disc player. The research is part of the Camileon project. For the past three years, the team has been looking at methods of digital preservation and testing them with materials like the BBC project.

The Domesday Project highlights the problems of digital preservation.

Databases recorded in old computer formats can no longer be accessed on new generation machines, while magnetic storage tapes and discs have physically decayed, ruining precious databases. “BBC Domesday has become a classic example of the dangers facing our digital heritage,” said project manager Paul Wheatley. “But it must be remembered that time is of the essence. We must invest wisely in developing an infrastructure to preserve our digital records before it is too late.” “We must not make the mistake of thinking that recording on a long-lived medium gives us meaningful preservation,” he warned.

Book vs discs
Domesday Book of 1086 is in fine condition. The information gathered by the Domesday Project has been difficult to access for 16 years. The video discs feature about a million people in the UK. They contain video clips from the BBC and ITV companies as well as 200,000 pictures and tens of thousands of maps. By contrast, the original Domesday Book, an inventory of England compiled in 1086 by Norman monks, is in fine condition in the Public Record Office in Kew, London.

The software and hardware needed to access the Domesday discs is to be deposited at the Public Record Office once the project is completed.

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