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Databases & Digital Humanities: Whose Power? Whose Peril?

Databases & Digital Humanities: Whose Power? Whose Peril?

This past Tuesday, Katherine Montgomery and I facilitated a conversation among nine University of Iowa (UI) faculty and staff who are all involved with digital research or digital humanities initiatives in one way or another. One theme expressed was the importance of databases in any work that moves forward. “Databases run everything,” said Dr. Jim Elmborg, adding that to Ed Folsom, the database is the new narrative.

Dr. Elmborg’s project—that I have the honor of working on as a graduate assistant—is a plan to investigate a mid-20th-century literary movement through the tool of a database. The aim is to collect metadata on this literature for those approaching the tool to manipulate for their own research and learning goals. Dr. Elmborg believes that creating digital projects to drive theses changes traditional practices in the humanities. It’s no longer the professor-god determining importance; it’s bottom-up, potentially grassroots knowledge discovery.

Paul Dilley, who is a part of the UI’s DH cluster hire, spoke of challenges he’s encountered in trying to bring attention to unknown Egyptian art and inscriptions. His tool of choice? A database. Issues arising for him include bibliographic control and copyright roadblocks in trying to make these works public.

I may have been primed to see the importance of databases as the big takeaway from Tuesday’s discussion because of how immersed I’ve been in the idea of them since spring. There are things I understand and things I don’t understand. They thrive at both the big-vision level as well as the minute-detail level.

Databases are not only critical to my current project but also shepherd my online existence from one growing pain to the next. What does Facebook and Google and Twitter store about me? How many blogs have I read and learned from? And how would my HASTAC Scholar blog work without one?

Of the many ideas from Tuesday’s discussion that I need to follow up on is the idea that databases are tied to cultural and social imperatives. This is not something I feel confident to write about without additional references. The statement came from Dr. André Brock, who holds a joint appointment with the School of Library and Information Science and the Project on Rhetoric and Inquiry. I’m currently taking a course from him, so it shouldn’t be too hard to have him elaborate. But my hunch is that relying solely on this tool may be a cultural zero-sum game (i.e., there will be winners and losers).

For me and my concerns about data curation and digital preservation, the pitfalls have to deal with the long-term accessibility and reliability of the infrastructure as systems change. In some ways, digital data is highly fragile. A file extension that works today may be obsolete tomorrow, while a crumbling book is still a book. Is this an empty concern?

While looking around for information on data curation, I came across the Data Conservancy initiative, which aims to preserve data collected for scientific study. Although our data is different—the data I’m working to organize is squarely in the realm of the humanities—I have much to learn from the Data Conservancy’s approach. I’m guessing any data management plan that results from this will involve databases heavily.

Despite causes for concern, potential uses for databases in DH projects are exciting. Their role shouldn’t be taken for granted or treated as a magical or mystical system. Better to understand what dominates us rather than succumb to its whims—or the whims of its programmers.

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