BBC Domesday Project Reloaded for the Internet age

It was 925 years ago that William the Conqueror carried out a complete census of England. It was 900 years later that the BBC decided to do something similar when they asked hundreds of thousands of people around the country to supply photos, videos, accounts of their daily lives and lists of amenities in their local communities in what became the BBC Domesday Project. In a matter of days, all of that information will finally be available to see online as Domesday Reloaded. Ahead of the launch, Pocket-lint was invited on a trip down memory lane to technology as it was in 1986.

All of the data for the Domesday Project was collated on 8-bit Acorn BBC Master AIV computers - state of the art at the time. These 4MHz, 128KB RAM, shift-break-shift machines had to be understood and worked with by normal, 1980s non-techy, members of society and the hope was that they would eventually be bought as machines to peruse the great catalogue after the project was completed. The trouble was that once you factored in the additional trackerball controller and Philips VP415 LaserDisc drive used to play the 2x12-inch optical units that the 1.2GB of information that the Domesday Project itself was stored upon, the cost came to around £5,000. In 1986, that was more than enough to buy yourself a very nice car.

So, while big museums and the odd top educational establishment stumped up the required fortune, the project, with its hundreds of thousands of articles, days in the life written by adults and children of the time, 20,000 photos and wealth of interactive videos and news reports stayed largely on the four sides of the two discs it came on and rendered onto very few computer screens at all. Wind the clock on 25 years to a time where all households have a personal computer and the Internet upon which to view as much data as you like without the need for large, shiny, obsolete physical media, and finally there’s a chance to for the BBC to put to bed what the Controller of BBC Learning, Saul Nasse, describes as a “massive piece of unfinished business”.

“It was ahead of it’s time. It was crowd sourcing before Tim Berners-Lee had even thought of the world wide web; user-generated content and Google maps before anything like that existed. It was a mini-Internet.”

While the original Domesday Book was a way for the king to value how much tax could be levied upon each piece of land, the 1986 project was quite different - a bottom up look of society in Thatcher’s Britain for a portrait of how the nation was changing.

The Community Disc - the part of the Domesday Project to be put online in Domesday Reloaded - saw the country split up into 3km x 4km sections known as D-blocks with each one containing an archive of media of what life was like in that part of the country, and while so many people took the time to contribute, very few of them ever got to see the fruits of their labour.

Perhaps the most touching part of all were the descriptions written by thousands of schoolchildren of their differing experiences at a time of such great divides in prosperity with the backdrop of the Miners’ Strike an all too obvious influence on day-to-day existence.

“The beauty was because children are in it,” said Nasse, “and they add all the things that adults take for granted and don’t think to write down. That’s what makes it such a good picture of the time; an intensive view of how British people saw themselves. It’ll be a gold mine for centuries to come.”

Within a matter of days, all of this Community data will be available on the BBC website. You can view each D-block as a separate mini-archive, reading the stories, looking at how your local towns and villages have changed and comparing photographs taken from the same spot switching between 1986 and 2011 at the touch of a button. While the BBC’s claims of an internet before the Internet might be grandiose, it’s hard not to appreciate the Domesday Project and Domesday Reloaded as a fascinating digital encyclopaedia to stand as a slice of life by which we will always be able to view a changing nation.

At the very least, the launch of the Domesday Reloaded site on 12 May will mark the moment, 25 years on, that thousands of children of 1986 will finally be able to see what it is that they made, as well as teach the important lesson that we never quite know what’s round the corner in terms of technology.

Did you write anything for the Domesday Project? Let us know in the comments