The Great Structures of Information Known as Databases

As a librarian and a historian, I find databases to be incredibly helpful. What is a database? At the most basic level, it is a structure of collected data. As Lev Manovich points out in “Database as a Genre of New Media,” there are different kinds of databases: hierarchical, network, relation- and object-oriented. Databases have completely revolutionized how scholars search for information. I noticed that the readings were ordered in the same sort of pattern as the weeks before: the first few articulated the topic at hand, then discussed the negative aspects before concluding with the positive aspects.

What are some of the problems or obstacles associated with databases? Scholars no longer have to go to archives to find their sources. Some will never physically experience an archive, hold fragile primary source material, or wear the white gloves. Tim Hitchcock, in “Digital Searching and the Re-formulation of Historical Knowledge,” argues that the digitization changes the nature of the archive in two different ways: how the archive is used and how historians experience it. Historians can now experience archives while sitting in their pajamas on their living room couch. The archive has transitioned from being a mobile, physical location to being accessible whenever one has an internet connection. Manovich sees this increasing distance between scholars and the physical archive as a problem. As Patrick Spedding discusses in “The New Machine: Uncovering the Limits of ECCO,” not every single piece of information is accessible via databases. There is a selection process that happens when deciding whether or not to digitize certain materials, and the largest factor in that decision oftentimes is whether or not the commercial vendor will make any money from digitizing that source. This is definitely a serious issue that must be dealt with as soon as possible. I believe that all material within the public domain should be available to the public at no charge. Vendors such as ProQuest charge institutions incredibly high prices for access to such materials, when those materials should be freely accessible in the first place. Yet another problem discussed in this week’s readings is that there are no standards in place for citing digital sources, articulating their search processes, and describing their results. Historians must do their due diligence in researching how databases gather and display their information. They should determine whether the text being searched has been run through OCR software or transcribed by hand; how often the body of material of the database is updated; if fuzzy logic is employed when displaying search results.

Databases have many advantages. The two foremost benefits of databases are efficiency and access. Scholars can undertake significant research in their field without having to travel great distances. Lara Putnam calls this phenomenon “geographic unanchoring” in her article “The Transnational and Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast.” Millions of sources have been digitized and have furthered historical study in numerous ways. Caleb McDaniel articulates how beneficial databases and online sources have been to early American historians in “The Digital Early Republic.” Without digitization and databases, much of their source material would still be in boxes and would have remained untouched until a lone researcher stumbles upon it. James Mussell, in “Doing and Making: History as Digital Practice,” argues that digital history does not take the historian away from primary sources but provides the historian with a new context to encounter those sources.

While many people rightly have concerns about databases, including how they collect, curate, store, and display information, the greater accessibility to materials is so disproportionately advantageous that those concerns seem almost trivial by comparison. That is not to say those issues shouldn’t be addressed – they should be, and sooner rather than later. We need to create standards for describing our digital research processes, and we need to figure out how to push controlling commercial interests out of the scholarly field. Despite these obstacles, historians and scholars should embrace the changes brought about by the digital revolution.

Week 4 readings

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