Inside the Project to Immortalize John Peel’s Record Collection

Before even cassettes became kitsch, we had the vinyl record. One legendary Englishman, John Peel, had more vinyl than just about anyone else. And, as one of the most influential disc jockeys ever to grace the airwaves, he often had them before everyone else.

Vinyl sales are on the rise again, a testament to the physical format's ability to carry weight in a digital world. At an age when I still get black X's on my hands at shows, I am no stranger to its allure.

An attempt is underway to transport John Peel's own personal record collection into the digital age, as a boon to music fans of today and for the benefit of future generations. It's a massive undertaking. In vinyl alone, John Peel‘s collection includes over 66,000 LPs, singles, and those weird in-between formats like the 10-inch EP - and that's not even counting thousands of CDs collected by the late BBC Radio 1 DJ.

To bring Peel's collection to the digital world for the good of humanity, the multimedia website The Space, a partner of BBC and the Arts Council of England, launched the John Peel Archive in May.The archive includes a browsable - and playable - version of his record collection, pictured to the right. You can already listen to some of it. However, adding all of his music in this painstaking manner could take years.

So far, the project includes a virtual museum of Peel's office, with an interactive view of select records. You can browse the LPs as if they were on an actual shelf. See an interesting title? Pull it out and view the album art from Peel's exact copy; the intricate liner notes where Peel marked songs with asterisks (an early version of the "starring" and "Liking" we do today); and his hand-typed index cards cataloging each record. You can also click through to stream certain tracks on Spotify and other services, add album covers to Pinterest, and engage in other digital niceties of our times.

We contacted the people in charge of this thing to see what it's all about, and find out how things are going. For starters, why turn a disc jockey's record collection into a browseable, playable museum on the internet?

"It seemed an obvious fit," said Charlie Gauvain, creative director of the John Peel Archive. "Once we knew it was an online project, we worked with a local company to design and build the site so that it felt very personal and you got the feeling of leafing through the records as much as you can on a computer screen."

Gauvain had worked with Peel himself on many occasions with projects for Eye Film and Television (Gauvain is its managing director). After Peel's passing, his widow Sheila Ravenscroft invited Gauvain to work with the John Peel Centre for Creative Arts, ultimately leading to his involvement.

Unfortunately for completists, digitizing the entire collection is too daunting, given the level of detail they're trying for here. The first 100 records of each letter of the alphabet will be released every week through October. Each section will have its own mini-documentary featuring a particular artist chosen by Ravenscroft. On Tuesday, July 3, the project will be up to the letter J, which is about halfway through.

Things got off to a somewhat rocky start, due to the unique challenges of dealing with not only paper and cardboard, but in turning them into a large-scale database.

"Everything had to work off the site [due to the lack of a back-end system], and the code written to be able to go through the actual records spines is quite complicated," he said. "When we first applied to The Space, we were under the impression we would just create content and then it would be put into The Space by the BBC, but in the end this was just not possible. However, this now means that we can continue the project after The Space finishes in October, although we hope The Space will continue and we can continue producing content onto it."

Project programmer and designer James Leeds, founder of Klik, explained the need for the team to work creatively on their own, because BBC's systems would not allow execution of code on the server.

It wasn't easy, but on the plus side, this made for a smooth, tactile experience - one of the most innovative archival efforts we've ever heard about. If the team releases an API to let other people build stuff out of all this, things could get even more interesting. Gauvain said that there's "nothing very imminent" on the release of the API any time soon, but he did add that "there have been some discussions about possible John Peel apps."

As currently envisioned, the John Peel Archive will only include about 10 percent of Peel's LPs by the end of October - but hopefully, it will not end there. "We now need to find further funding to continue the project and complete the entire collection," Gauvain said. "Ideally we would like to have it finished by October 2014, which will be the 10th anniversary of John's death."

In a context when digitization is everything, given the way we experience the world today, the John Peel Archive is a valuable way to make sure this vinyl-based repository of knowledge and taste will never fall completely out of the picture. By preserving handwritten notes, cardboard sleeves, and even the shelves, this project shows that digitization can work in tandem with, as opposed to hindering, the appeal of the physical format.

"We would love to be able to speed up the process of getting vinyl recorded digitally, and there is an idea we'd like to pursue if we could get the right backing," Gauvain said. "I hope that this will encourage others to think about their collections and how they can be preserved."

The John Peel Archive is one of 53 projects that are part of The Space, a new on-demand digital arts service available free of charge via the internet, smartphones, tablets and connected TV, on Freeview and Freeview HD. The project was developed by the Arts Council England in partnership with the BBC. Launched on May 1, The Space will run until the end of October, covering various arts events including the London 2012 Festival and wider Cultural Olympiad.

Inside the Project to Immortalize John Peel’s Record Collection Evolver.fm observes, tracks and analyzes the music apps scene, with the belief that it's crucial to how humans experience music, and how that experience is evolving.