How a database works: some thoughts on a student task

BeggarsmetadataHere’s some out-loud thinking about a session for my new module Digital Literary Studies. Since the module will require students to work with a wide range of online resources, I really wanted to make sure they could begin to understand how they work. Moreover, the module – via eighteenth-century literature – will be thinking about categorisation and representation, so I wanted to build a set of tasks that would introduce these issues. Below is a draft of what I might give to my students. (Acknowledgement: this is an adaptation of a student task devised by George Williams, who kindly shared it with me in a pub near the British Library). I’ll aim to write a post on how it goes.

Throughout this module we’re going to be working with a variety of online databases and resources, so the aim of this session is to get an idea of what happens behind the scenes (a.k.a the ‘interface’): it’s really about how data is ordered and managed so it can be searched. You might find it helpful before this session to look at other online databases and catalogues you’re used to using to see how you can search them (e.g. JSTOR or the BSU library catalogue).

  1. I’ve given you a number of music CDs: select two each. For each individual CD assign a sheet of paper and write down a list of information about it, beginning with the obvious categories of artist/group name and title of CD. Then move to other categories of information: at this point I’ll leave these up to you (and no conferring at this point – you’ll see why later).
  1. Congratulations, you’ve built a database! Let’s try some searches and see what happens.
  1. Now get together and compare your categories. For each category assign a sheet of paper and list all the relevant data for that category (i.e. one sheet will have all the artists/group names; another sheet will have all the titles; and so on for each category). Well done, you’ve now built what’s called a ‘relational database’.
  1. To what extent did you each order data differently? Was some information difficult to represent or categorise? How did you solve these differences and difficulties?
  1. At this point, we’ll try some more searches using your data and see what comes up and, perhaps, what is missing.

To conclude we’ll compare our database with something like the English Short-Title Catalogue and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. You’ll note that we’ve built a database that describes objects, but does not actually give us the object itself: in many cases this is called ‘meta-data’. (In different context, the electronic surveillance programmes run by NSA and GCHQ have been described as the analysis of meta-data: for a revealing view on such ‘data-mining’ see this fascinating piece of research by MIT researcher Ethan Zuckerman).

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