Co.Create

Behind The Amazing John Peel Digital Archive

Recently the BBC and the Arts Council England released an interactive website revealing a taste of the vast and hugely influential private collection of legendary radio DJ and journalist John Peel. We spoke with developers Klik to understand how it was done, why, given the limitations, it’s even more impressive than you thought, and why this could be just the beginning.

Music fans the world over mourned when John Peel died in 2004 at the relatively young age of 65. Throughout his 40 years as a BBC radio DJ, Peel was the unofficial pied piper of new music. He gave innumerable bands their first big break and routinely exposed diverse and emerging genres. Now eight years after his death, the BBC and England’s Arts Council have begun to bring Peel’s legendary private collection of over 26,000 records to the public with The John Peel Archive, part of BBC’s The Space.

The interactive site, which will unveil Peel’s collection, one alphabet letter a week from May to October, takes you right inside Peel’s home studio. Various hot spots on the page take you to content such as the infamous John Peel sessions, photos, videos, and radio shows, and, of course, his sprawling record collection.

John Peel’s untouched studio serves as the site’s navigation page.

The record collection is organized on a record shelf, with the spines of the first hundred albums from each letter facing forward; rolling your mouse over each record replicates, as best as possible, the sensation of running your fingers along a row of albums. Clicking on individual records prompts a pop-up box with photos of the cover, as well as photos of Peel’s original notes made about the album, which includes track listings and a card number, representing when he actually received the album. At times, his note cards include comments or ratings of the albums, giving the experience a treasure-hunt feel. And where possible, links are provided to the albums on existing music services such as iTunes or Spotify.

With so many questions about why this collection was being released now, how it was made, and why only 100 records from each letter were being made available, we reached out to Klik, the digital agency responsible for the site. Here agency CEO and "main techie guy" James Leeds talks, in his own words, about unearthing a treasure trove of music, staying true to Peel’s legacy, and overcoming the technical and scheduling challenges that makes this project all the more impressive:

The origin of the project
John had a huge number of records in his home and his family had been wondering what to do with them. The original thought before he died was that the British Library was interested in archiving it as a collection. But that limited how people could access it, so we put together this project as a taster of what’s available in there to see if we could raise the profile of the collection, to see if there was any interest in it. This was a really interesting challenge for us because we know the family so we wanted to do a really good job of it, but also one that was sympathetic to how John would have done it.

The Studio
"We went up to the house where the collection is, just to get a flavor and a vibe, and it immediately changed all of our ideas on how we were going to do it. After John died, his wife Sheila Ravenscroft left it as it was. You almost didn’t want to disturb the dust in a way, because it was all exactly how John left it when he died. That room is where all the famous Peel Sessions ran from, so think of all the people who’ve been in there—Nirvana, Wedding Present… I just thought let’s just take a picture of it as it is—it’s quite a mess—and highlight bits for the web interface. We thought if we made the webpage really photographic and didn’t do traditional menu navs and stuff, we can make it as if you’re there. The only addition was that we created some acetate logos for Facebook and Twitter and stuck them on the shelf.

Bringing The Collection Online
"The actual collection itself is all over the house. Looking at the collection is fascinating because the records are the ones that John obviously decided to keep. John didn’t get his records in alphabetic order; he numbered and shelved them in the order. He then typed out index cards with the album number and put them in alpha order. All we did was take the first 100 of each letter, alphabetically.

"Because we wanted to translate the experience of running your fingers along the spines into the web interface, we had to go and find those 100 records, put them on an empty shelf, and shoot them. No one really knows what’s in the collection. As we’re going through it, a lot of the records in here haven’t been played since John played them. Then we shot the front and back of each cover; some of the albums have covers you don’t recognize. You have to remember, John got the first pressings of everything. And a lot of the albums have letters from the bands in them. Like, there’s a letter in the copy of Queen 2 from Freddie Mercury saying, "Please, please play this."

"Even though John seems like a kind of hipster hero, because he was always so much cooler than everyone else, the only reason he was so cool was because he didn’t give a shit about the hipsters. He didn’t really give a crap about what people liked or didn’t like. He liked what he liked. So there’s ABBA and ABC in there. It was brilliant seeing all of my guilty pleasures in the albums John liked.

"You get the feeling going through his collection that it was this actual record that John Peel played. And when he played it on BBC, it was probably the first time it was ever heard on radio. You wonder how many artists’ careers were actually made by that record you’re holding. One of the best parts was when Shelia said, "Play what you want," and turned on the decks.

The Tricky Part
"The whole project was done in three weeks. We wanted it to work across browsers, so we didn’t want to use Flash. But because it was a BBC project they have quite specific requirements. So we also had to support all Internet Explorer browsers down to IE 7. With the short nature of the project, we realized we had to support IOS, Android, Explorer, Firefox, and stuff all from the same code. We needed to work across the board right out of the box, so we had a pretty limited subset of tools. We couldn’t use HTML5, so it’s all HTML4 or Javascript. Then the BBC said, the arts council didn’t have any funding for us to get a web server. We did realize it would have enough traffic to destroy anything we had so the BBC had to host it. But because of their restrictions we couldn’t run anything on the server, so we couldn’t have any server-side code. We couldn’t have any databases, no PHP… nothing. So even though it looks like a CMS, database driven application, everything runs on Javascript.

"Another interesting thing was that when we started we really thought there would be no point digitizing the vinyl because everything would be available on MP3s. But when we started linking it up to Spotify or iTunes, or anything legal, it amazed me how little of the collection was available online.

Album 00001 in John Peel’s collection: Mike Absalom’s 1969 record "Save the Last Gherkin for Me"

"This is probably the most important record collection in the world in terms of its cultural significance. You look in boxes and he’s got personal demos from all kinds of people, so it needs to be sorted it. I think Sheila is aware that the collection will begin to deteriorate over time, so it needs to be preserved. So I think it would be great if we were able to digitize a lot of this stuff. But it’s a question of funding. The family doesn’t want to do anything that wouldn’t be in keeping with John’s wishes of how he’d have dealt with it. They don’t want to cash in; they want to keep the collection together.

"My personal opinion is, while we’ve done our best to get this thing online and up and running, I think it needs to be done properly longer term. It needs a permanent home on a permanent server. It would be great to have someone to come in and do it, but it needs to be respectful to the collection as well. I think it really needs something similar to the library digitization project that Google embarked on—to actually go in and record what’s there and create a database. Even just having a list of what’s in there is important.

"So if we can raise that kind of awareness around the need for funding to digitize the collection, it would be incredible."

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3 Comments

  • drasil

    who the hell is this james leeds guy? first, he helpfully tells us that the records in peel's collection are "obviously" the ones he decided to keep (...) and then spends three sentences saying that peel didn't receive his records over the years in alphabetical sequence. and I'm not sure what to make of his comment that the collection "will begin to deteriorate over time." is their house an oven? or maybe full of acetone? without assistance, vinyl doesn't break down over any timespan shorter than tens of thousands of years, so maybe he's thinking of the children's children's children's children's children's...