Databases are integral to many digital humanities projects. Designing an effective database requires familiarity with the functions and various scripting options for each component of the architecture – but this, of course, is only half of the battle. Functions, scripts, and structures are only useful in the extent to which they are tailored to model things – concepts, interactions, realities, etc. It is during the process of design that the humanistic and the digital meet and can shape one another in fascinating ways. It is also during this process that scholars can run into all sorts of challenges that are outside of their skill set to resolve.
In acknowledgement of how monumental of a task database development can be, DH McGill hosted a Database Fundamentals Workshop on Nov, 7th 2012.
There were three goals to the workshop:
- demystify databases
- provide participants with the opportunity to “ask an expert” their pressing database questions; and
- develop a rough typology of the challenges faced by scholars who are currently using and/ or are interested in developing databases for DH research.
Participants were treated to an information-packed presentation on database design by Prof. Charles-Antoine Julien from The School of Information Studies at McGill. The presentation was helpful in familiarizing participants with the basics of database design, as well as providing reference material to aid them in identifying the types of external support they may need.
Two broad topics dominated the “ask-an-expert” and feedback components of the workshop:
- strategies for managing the design process (e.g. skill sourcing, documentation, standards, and quality control); and
- rules of thumb for thinking about design when engaged in emergent research (e.g. when scholars may not know what the “crucial variables” of their research will be until they are well into the analysis stage).
Given the flurry of questions that kept up long past the end of the workshop, it is safe to stay that database design is a pressing issue for DH scholars at McGill and one that warrants follow-up. As one participant noted, “databases are at the back of everything.”
Where do we go from here?
DH McGill is in the process of compiling and coordinating resources to support DH research on campus, including developing a pool of research assistants with technical and administrative skills, as well as organizing workshops, tutorials, and summer courses in areas of interest to DH scholars. If you have a research need or training suggestion, please contact us about it at firstname.lastname@example.org.