Week in Review: Workshop on Databases for Medievalists with Dr. Maryanne Kowaleski

This past 5 February, Dr. Maryanne Kowaleski took a break from her appointment at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study to deliver a presentation and lead a workshop on how individual scholars may develop and prepare a database to assist in their research. While the workshop was specifically meant to aid in the Independent Crusader Database project the Center is currently undertaking, the main points of how to construct a database easily apply to nearly any study or field of research requiring the organization of vast volumes of data. Breaking the entire process down step-by-step, Dr. Kowaleski began with which database software program to use and what each offers the prospective user. Be it Microsoft Access or Filemaker Pro, of paramount importance is that the user spends the time necessary to read through whatever manuals come with the software, including such additional guides as the ubiquitous “For Dummies” series. While this point might seem an obvious one, diving into a database program without knowing what that program is capable of, as, frankly, many people do with many types of programs, will leave you at a severe disadvantage. Like a painter who does not know how to mix his colours effectively, a researcher, working either independently or with a group, who does not know what his or her database program is capable of will only be adding information into a table without being able to do anything with it: the data will be an amorphous mass on a screen.

As Dr. Kowaleski related, it is all too easy, when compiling a database of any kind, to fill it in with as much information as the researcher finds interesting. One must limit a database to a specific type of record (detailing a marriage, an indictment, a person, etc.) to serve as a basis of investigation, and stick to that specific type so that each entry in the database does not stray into areas superfluous to the topic of research. Just because a particular point found in a source is fascinating, that does not mean it must be noted in the database unless it modifies the frame of the research topic, as will inevitably happen over the course of one’s study. Focus and specificity are a database compiler’s greatest allies; time, as in most cases, is not.

Herself using databases she produced and continues to augment and adapt with new discoveries for well over a decade, Dr. Kowaleski showed that a properly assembled database can illuminate mistakes in assumptions made at the beginning of the research endeavour, and can serve as a continuing work in progress as one moves on to further studies in the same general topic, as the database can be adapted as new information comes to light and foci shift direction. Far from set-in-stone, a database is something which can be modified and augmented as time goes on, making it an ideal method of note-taking when working on a long-term project and when relating a process of analysis to a wider audience. This, of course, applies to far more than historical research. We are in constant contact with databases, both appearing before our eyes and employed behind the proverbial scenes. Every time one buys something online, that purchase is catalogued and incorporated into databases displaying your buying patterns both individually and as part of the entirety of a seller’s clientele. Demography relies entirely upon the employ of databases in order to present regional information collected in some coherent, useful way. The ability to chart and organize large quantities of information over a prolonged period of time is vital to any profession or academic discipline what requires the analysis of individual cases in relation to one-another under certain circumstances or within a specific context.

The Center thanks Dr. Kowaleski for her sharing her considerable knowledge and experience with us during her time on leave.

 

By Kevin Vogelaar