Back to the classroom - the Domesday project

Yesterday I was invited to speak to a local primary school about my job. The purpose of the event was to inspire kids to work in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) and I was faced with an audience of 10 and 11 year old girls.

One member of the audience (my daughter) informed me that many of the girls were only there because they had been bribed with cake.

This could be a tough gig!

On a serious note, there is a huge gender imbalance in STEM careers with women only making up 23% of the workforce in core STEM occupations. In talking to the STEM ambassador who was at this event, it was apparent that recruitment in engineering is quite hard, with not enough boys OR girls choosing to work in this area. This is also true in my area of work and is one of the reasons we are involved in the "Bridging the Digital Gap" project led by The National Archives. They note in a blog post about the project that:

"Digital skills are vital to the future of the archives sector ...... if archives are going to keep up with the pace of change, they need to attract members of the workforce who are confident in using digital technology, who not only can use digital tools, but who are also excited and curious about the opportunities and challenges it affords."

So why not try and catch them really young and get kids interested in our profession?

There were a few professionals speaking at the event and subjects were varied and interesting. We heard from someone who designed software for cars (who knew how many different computers are in a modern car?), someone who had to calculate exact mixes of seed to plant in Sites of Special Scientific Interest in order to encourage the right wild birds to nest there, a scientist who tested gelatin in sweets to find out what animal it was made from, an engineer who uses poo to heat houses....I had some pretty serious competition!

I only had a few minutes to speak so my challenge was to try and make digital preservation accessible, interesting and relevant in a short space of time. You could say that this was a bit of an elevator pitch to school kids.

Once I got thinking about this I had several ideas of different angles I could take.

I started off looking at the Mount School Archive that is held at the Borthwick. This is not a digital archive but was a good introduction to what archives are all about and why they are interesting and important. Up until 1948 the girls at this school created their own school magazine that is beautifully illustrated and gives a fascinating insight into what life was like at the school. I wanted to compare this with how schools communicate and disseminate information today and discuss some of the issues with preserving this more modern media (websites, twitter feeds, newsletters sent to parents via email).

Several powerpoint slides down the line I realised that this was not going to be short and snappy enough.

I decided to change my plans completely and talk about something that they may already know about, the Domesday Book.

I began by asking them if they had heard of the Domesday Book. Many of them had. I asked what they knew about it. They thought it was from 1066 (not far off!), someone knew that it had something to do with William the Conqueror, they guessed it was made of parchment (and they knew that parchment was made of animal skin). They were less certain of what it was actually for. I filled in the gaps for them.

I asked them whether they thought this book (that was over 900 years old) could still be accessed today and they weren't so sure about this. I was able to tell them that it is being well looked after by The National Archives and can still be accessed in a variety of ways. The main barrier to understanding the information is that it is written in Latin.

I talked about what the Domesday Book tells us about our local area. A search on Open Domesday tells us that Clifton only had 12 households in 1086. Quite different from today!

We then moved forward in time, to a period of history known as 'The 1980's' (a period that the children had recently been studying at school - now that makes me feel old!). I introduced them to the BBC Domesday Project of 1986. Without a doubt one of digital preservation's favourite case studies!

I explained how school children and communities were encouraged to submit information about their local areas. They were asked to include details of everyday life and anything they thought might be of interest to people 1000 years from then. People took photographs and wrote information about their lives and their local area. The data was saved on to floppy disks (what are they?) and posted to the BBC (this was before email became widely available). The BBC collated all the information on to laser disc (something that looks a bit like a CD but with a diameter of about 30cm).

I asked the children to consider the fact that the 900 year old Domesday Book is still accessible and  think about whether the 30 year old BBC Domesday Project discs were equally accessible. In discussion this gave me the opportunity to finally mention what digital archivists do and why it is such a necessary and interesting job. I didn't go into much technical detail but all credit to the folks who actually rescued the Domesday Project data. There is lots more information here.

Searching the Clifton and Rawcliffe area on Domesday Reloaded

Using the Domesday Reloaded website I was then able to show them what information is recorded about their local area from 1986. There was a picture of houses being built, and narratives about how a nearby lake was created. There were pieces written by a local school child and a teacher describing their typical day. I showed them a piece that was written about 'Children's Crazes' which concluded with:

" Another new activity is break-dancing
 There is a place in York where you can
 learn how to break-dance. Break     
 dancing means moving and spinning on
 the floor using hands and body. Body-
 popping is another dance craze where
 the dancer moves like a robot."

Disappointingly the presentation didn't entirely go to plan - my powerpoint only partially worked and the majority of my carefully selected graphics didn't display.

A very broken powerpoint presentation

There was thus a certain amount of 'winging it'!

This did however allow me to make the point that working with technology can be challenging as well as perhaps frustrating and exciting in equal measure!

Jenny Mitcham, Digital Archivist


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