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Frequently Asked Questions : Preserving BBC Domesday

Following media publicity about the launch of the Digital Preservation Coalition and the near demise of BBC Domesday, the topic of preservation was discussed on several different internet sites including Slashdot. The press launch for the DPC also attracted media attention but unfortunately some of the reporting was not very accurate. Here we answer some of the questions, suggestions and misconceptions regarding BBC Domesday and digital preservation in general.

Why not print out BBC Domesday?

Given the problems of digital preservation, many have suggested returning the data to a "physical" or "non-digital" form. Print to paper, etch onto clay, steel, print to microfilm, etc. These alternatives are flawed for a number of reasons. BBC Domesday incorporates many different kinds of media including moving video. It is a multimedia resource, allowing exploration and searching in a non-linear way. Much of the resource is interactive. A typical Domesday display is created "on the fly". A "printed" version of BBC Domesday would lose much of the interactivity of this resource and would fall far short of preserving it as a historical or intellectual resource.

Why use the digital medium in the first place?

Many have suggested avoiding the digital medium and the digital preservation problems that come with it. However, the IT revolution has shown the value of digital records and the powerful searching tools that come with them. It has been said by the creators of Domesday that it would take over seven years to view all the data on the discs. Powerful search and interactive navigation allows the user to easily locate relevant information...

If no one has yet preserved BBC Domesday then surely it isn't worth preserving?

Digital preservation is a very new area of research and little is known about the gradual (or not so gradual!) slide a digital object makes from conception and popular use to complete obsolescence, which Stewart Granger has termed the "death cycle". In the case of BBC Domesday, the escalated cost of the original system limited its uptake. However, many higher educational institutions purchased the resource and there is still demand for its use by researchers. It is not known if this will decline or increase due to the historical nature of both the Domesday data and the system itself. Just because the work to preserve hasn't been funded in the past it doesn't mean to say there is no demand for use.

Isn't videodisc technology analogue and hence nothing to do with digital preservation as reported in the Guardian?

In March 2002, Danny O'Brien responded to Loyd Grossmans appearance at the Digital Preservation Coalition launch by suggesting that his illustration of the digital preservation problem was "flawed". Mr O'Brien stated that if Domesday had been digital there would never have been a digital preservation problem. BBC Domesday does use a semi-analogue technology to store its image data, but the rest of the information stored on the discs is in digital form. Mr O'Brien also suggests that "Rather than hoard our bits in an archive, we should spread them around generously." CAMiLEON argues that it doesn't matter how many copies we have of a digital object's bytestream if we have no way of understanding what those bytes mean.

Why not transfer the data to CD or DVD Roms?

Current media like CD Roms are likely to be just as short lived as the rapidly changing media of the past (eg. paper tape, punched cards, magnetic tape, 7" floppies, 5" floppies, 3" floppies etc). Storing data in a media-neutral form provides part of the answer to the digital preservation problem.

Why not just upload all the data to the internet?

Uploading data to the internet provides no guarantee of longevity. Furthermore the hardest part of the digtial preservation problem is not simply maintaining a copy of the data but maintaining a way of understanding that data. Posting all the data to the internet with no way of running the original BBC software which interprets the data effectively leaves us with a meaningless sequence of 0s and 1s.

Why does the Observer's article on BBC Domesday not correlate with the information on this web site?

The Observer conducted a telephone interview with CAMiLEON Project Manager, Paul Wheatley, a the end of February 2002, resulting in a piece in the Observer on Sunday. The article is not a fair representation of CAMiLEON's views and the quotes attributed to Paul Wheatley are far from accurate.

Why has the original 1086 Domesday book survived while the 15 year old digital BBC Domesday project is all but gone?

This isn't strictly true. The hardest part of the BBC Domesday preservation problem is understanding the "digital language" of the data and BBC Micro software stored on the disc. Using the original 1086 Domesday book relies on a knowledge of Latin which is to many of course, obsolete.

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