Digital History — Spring 2010

February 5, 2010

All your database are belong to us?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 6:46 am

[explanation of the blogpost title]

I think both of the seminar papers that I’ve done here at IU could probably have benefited from some database style organization. The first one focused on changes between 1890 and 1940 in mainstream impressions of Appalachians and African-Americans as problematic (or “distinctive”) American populations. I approached the issue by tracing changes in the staging, performance and audience reception of a play/musical/movie called In Old Kentucky.

In retrospect, I think that managing my sources for this project via database might have generated some interesting statistical data, or at the very least might have helped me organize my sources better. I spent a LOT of time combing through digitized theater reviews on Proquest and the Nineteenth Century American Newspapers Database. While I made sure on my first pass through the archives to save a wide selection of the most interesting or suggestive reviews (often as links in a draft email), in my writing process I sometimes found that I had failed to flag the important part of the review for later perusal.  Also, sources I had overlooked initially were now important to my argument. Organizing the theater reviews into a searchable or at least tagged database would have allowed me to master the sources more thoroughly. Also, after reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s piece predicated on numerical data in probate wills, I realize that quick access to statistics like the number of reviews of the show in a given year, the types of publications that covered the show, or even an index of the frequency of certain words within the reviews could have led me to some interesting conclusions about the show’s popularity and resonance over time in different communities. As Bill Turkel points out, surveying “statistically improbable phrases” can be quite illuminating, as could statistically probable phrases.

Databases would also have been helpful with my next seminar paper, an examination of major changes in male romantic advice literature of the late 20th century, with particular attention to the politicization of the interactive Internet-based culture of pick-up artistry. In fact, since much of the material that I was dealing with was born digital (blog posts, websites, forum discussions), Zotero seemed to be a natural fit. However, like Kalani, I discovered that Zotero had limited usefulness — or at least,  my understanding of the software’s potential may have been limited. (Still, I agree with Kalani that it needs to enable better notation, especially of non-standard sources!) My problem with Zotero was that I needed a less folder-based and more web-based interface — one that allowed for multiple connections between pieces of evidence. I tried to use tagging to overcome this issue, but found that I needed to refine my own tagging categories as time went on. Individual pieces of evidence often fit into multiple categories — or none at all.

Essentially, when it came time to write the paper, I realized that I wasn’t as organized as I thought I was. While databases are designed to help you organize your sources and make connections between different pieces of evidence, I could also see the possibility of database maintenance and preliminary organizational behaviors becoming an enormous time-sink! (As an analogy, my mom likes to point to my tendency to make lists about what I need to pack as a way to procrastinate about packing.)

Still, I believe that personal databases have a lot of potential — both for projects with clearly delimited boundaries and goals, and for people who realize that they’re onto something interesting, and who just want to have a pool of raw data to begin to think about. I will need to practice my “spidering” and “scraping” skills (the former enabled more easily these days by tabbed browsing!), gain a better sense of what free or low-cost tools are out there to help me refine and organize my findings (Evernote seems particularly cool), and learn to think creatively about how databases can support either a single project or a series of modular works that draw on the same or associated data sets.

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