Record time

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
Jack Kenny describes a project to save a 20th-century Domesday book

If you were a teacher or pupil between 1984 and '86, you would almost certainly have heard about the BBC's Domesday project. Teachers and pupils across the country were asked to give information on themselves and their locality. Maybe you even contributed.

Matthew, a pupil at Garland Junior School in Burghfield, Berkshire, was asked to describe a typical Sunday. He wrote: "After breakfast, we usually go down to the woods and jump off a tree that is broken at the base. I used to jump off the second highest branch, but now I jump off the highest.

Afterwards I get my football and we play Three In, that is when someone has scored three goals he becomes the goalkeeper."

Some of the data was more focused. Manor Farm in West Tisted, Hampshire, is described in detail: "Manor Farm and stud is an estate farm of 1,940 acres and covers most of the land in West Tisted village. It employs 24 workers and they and their families live on the farm. The dairy section has 220 Friesian cows; the pig section has 170 sows producing 3,000 fat pigs each year; the sheep section has a flock of 1,200 Mule ewes producing 2,000 lambs a year." Will that have changed? Interesting to check. Data like that is available right across the country.

The BBC project was set up to mark the 900th anniversary of William the Conqueror's Domesday Book and was intended to provide a picture of British life on two video-discs. Schools were asked to create three photographs and pages of text about blocks of the country four kilometres from east to west and three kilometres from north to south. There are more than 24,000 such blocks in the UK. There are gaps in the data, but eventually what there was was put on to disk. The snag was that at pound;4,000 it was prohibitively expensive and only a few were sold. The BBC computers and Philips laser-disc machines that were used were superseded and not many of those who took part ever saw what the result.

The original Domesday books written around 1086 can still be read, but here was the latest technology, and 10 years on it was inaccessible.

To the rescue came two universities, Michigan, in the US, and Leeds. They had to retrieve 250,000 pages of text, 54,000 photographs, 24,000 maps, 10,000 datasets and moving images with sound. They called the project Camileon. They are investigating ways of preserving information electronically in an age when only half of one per cent of all material is published in print. It is estimated that there are five hundred million billion pages on the internet and it's growing. Making sure we can access it in future is a problem.

As a result of the Camileon work, the BBC Domesday project is now contained on one DVD. It is well worth seeing and next year schools will probably have a chance to buy the disc. It is wonderful for history, English and geography and work is already being done to link the information to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority programmes of study.

As for Matthew, he is probably now in his mid-20s; and Manor Farm might have been affected by foot and mouth.

One monk probably wrote the original Domesday books. He had his own problems - in 1086, printing had not yet been invented, not many people could read his books and most of the population were illiterate.

Visitors can now view the BBCDomesday data at the National Archives at Kew.

For access details and obtaining a reader's ticket, go Project: domesdaydomesday.htmlSally Pearce, University of Brighton School of Education, wants to hear from primary schools willing to take part in a pilot study on how the Domesday project might be linked with KS2 history. Email:

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