Truthful Moment: Reading about databases can often be a bit dry. At first glance, I found myself getting bogged down in parts of the technical jargon and somewhat esoteric writing. In comparison, other topics that we have yet to engage in the course seem much more appealing. However, in spite of my naysaying to begin this post, I found myself wrapped up in a few of the articles.
The free online course, “Designing Databases for Historical Research” (provided by the University of London), is a great resource for any person looking to learn about the structure and functions of databases. Even with a simple background in databases, I found the course refreshing and intriguing. I would like to dwell on their discussion of “shape” in their introductory section. The authors articulate a the struggle of translating/transcribing source information into database data. The end product, database data, in some ways is the epitome of structure and order (the latter part could be debated). This process is “tricky” as databases typically are tabular and rely on rows and columns for information organization. This framework, obviously, works well with some sources while others struggle to take on the right “shape.” For example, a census record fits easily into a database. This is not easily realized with a diary or newspaper advertisements.
The crafting or shaping of a source to “fit” into a database structure caused me to pause. I immediately thought of how this process of shaping influences and even changes the source. As much as historians might wish their sources followed rigid framework, they simply don’t. With most databases being tabular, the source has to be re-conceived within a “world” of rows for items and columns for attributes. What then must a historian do when moving the source information of a diary into a database, when that diary has large amounts of marginalia? Put more simply, what does marginalia look like in a database? Even more so, how does one articulate the possible location of the marginalia within the diary or on the page? While this is only one aspect of the difficult process of migrating source information to database data, it serves to highlight the overarching question of how is my experience or interaction with the source changed by the database structure? I am not in a position to begin to answer this question, but it is important none the less.
In connection with this notion of historian to source relationship, I found the two articles by Simon Burrows and Mark Curran on the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe (FBTEE) database (found here and here) engaging. While I am not even close to being a French historian, Burrows and Curran delve into the various modes of visualization provided by the database interface. This is intriguing to me as it had not even occurred to me that a database provide a varied interface for visualization and data exploration. If changing the “shape” of the source in some form alters the experience or interaction the historian has with the record, the numerous options in visualizing the databases records expands this experience. In my brief experiences with online databases, they tend to remain fairly static and rigid in their finding aids and methods of sifting through the material. This static framework not only inhibits the process the scholar undertakes in exploring that database, it removes a level of transparency the is extremely helpful for researchers, that of understanding the bounds of that database. While the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe (FBTEE) database was modeled along a geographic paradigm, they were able to use various mapping techniques to illustrate not only the breadth of their repository but the depth of the records. As a user, I can quickly determine what is or is not useful to me in my research. During my undergraduate degree in geography, my cartography professor would stress the importance of taking time to work on the aesthetics of the map (print or digital). Often times the attention is devoted towards the data itself and the actual design is an afterthought (much to the detriment of the overall intent and prupose of the map). This could be similarly applied to databases. Do not get so wrapped up in the development of the database as to not take time to improve the quality of the user interface and data visualization.
This weeks reading have reoriented my view of databases and how they can both alter the experience with the record while also being able to expand that experience in breadth and depth.