Blog Post

Databasing

 

They say you can never go home again. It’s a complicated idea, and an idea that summarizes what might be considered an emotional impetus for databasing. It’s also an idea that opens the doors to some fundamental questions regarding the worth of all-inclusive databases.

Going home is like moon-walking, but really moon-walking. To go home means to go backward while moving forward in time and space, back to the place you come from, a place that exists merely as an ideal reflected across the very time you’re traversing. Some aspects might resemble themselves well enough to match your definition, but others won’t. If those others have changed, so has ‘home.’ Bit by bit, piece by piece, and the process doesn’t stop. (‘There is water at the bottom of the ocean,’ says David Byrne.) So, maybe Thom Wolfe was right. You can never go home again— but you can sure try to remember.

Change is ubiquitous and of this ubiquity is born the high premium on remembering. We look back to our roots, the house we grew up in, the first meal we cooked in our tiny first apartment, and we become nostalgic. We create little catalogs of materials, attach meaning to physical representations of the past so we can save, in some small way, moments that slip past. In other words, we database our lives to easily access the past; we database our lives to add permanence.

The practice of databasing solidifies our viscous pasts and it stretches the boundaries of the present. It always has as (Bowker, 2006). It just so happens that at this point in time the process of databasing dovetails with contemporary developments in technology that allow for databasing with greater inclusion.

It seems to me, that one view regarding modern databasing practices is as follows: if everything can be databased and preserved, then everything should be databased and preserved. (It’s as though there’s an element of societal separation anxiety at work…) As an anecdotal example, I’d like you to take a look at how many people carry around cameras with them when they go out to bars with their friends. Were there so many cameras at parties before the age of Facebook? There weren’t when I was 21.

Inevitably things fall apart, and access to those memories stored in personal and cultural databases becomes spotty— at least, it has in the past. With that spottiness, however, comes the heightened value of the aspects which remain accessible: they allow for inference into those aspects that have disappeared. (Think of the emotional drive behind Doublefold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.) Would those aspects that have become more remote have as much value if they were there, plainly accessible for all to see and ‘remember’? Don’t we partially create and reflect our contemporary societal identity by making inferences about the past? Would these inferences be as telling if all aspects of the past were accessible across time?

Databasing is nothing new. Its existence across time alludes to its inherent connection to human life, which might be partially explained by an emotional impetus for databasing as practice. But, we’ve never before been in a position where it is possible to preserve so much, and we owe it to ourselves to question the implications of all-inclusive databasing practices, of being able to go home whenever we want.

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11 comments

Thanks for this post John.

Julie, I work with bibliographies too, and I'm interested in what we might be able to borrow from the study of bibliography to be more critical of the ways that databases shape the knowledge they contain. I'm curious what a sociology of databases might look like.

Certainly the triumphalism of many (admittedly very cool) digital databases used by people in the humanities begs an inquiry into them as social spaces as much as boxes of information. At least, I think this is close to Rahul's point about the ways that databases mediate information (I'm a fan of that Stallybrass and Blair essay too).

In another sense, I'm intrigued by the potential of the database as a way to conceptualize not just information but also things in non-narrative fashion. From people like Latour to the recent object oriented ontology, it seems to me that the concept of databases may be ripe for cross-pollination between people working in theory, comp sci, IT, and especially library science.

Can I propose that we all share / post sources that we think might relate to a (sociology, ontology, philosophy, anthropology, history, literature, library science) of databases? I'm curious what different disciplines might have to offer other than my own in literary history. I'm guessing that there must be some iSchools out there that have already tackled this area too.

What would a syllabus of database studies look like?

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Hi Folks-

Thanks for keeping the conversation going (and for the Wallace Stevens allusion!).

I would be very interested in developing a reading list/bibliography for a database studies course or workshop.

My advisor, Geof Bowker, has done a lot of thinking about this. I'll be sure to pick his brain a bit when we meet later on today.

In the meantime, have you all seen Goldberg & Hristova's 'Blue Velvet' in Vectors? It's a a pretty neat take on making a database readable/accessible.

Have to run.

js

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A bunch of discussions comparing databases and narratives in PMLA comes to my mind. Two of the articles are: Folsom E. (2005) Reply (Responses to Ed Folsom’s ‘Database as a Genre, the Epic Transformation of Archives’). PMLA.

Hayles, K (2005), Narrative and Database: Natural Symbionts. PMLA, 122(5): 1603-1608. 

There is a chapter on databases in Alan Liu's lovely Local transcendence: essays on postmodern historicism and the database

Tara McPherson gave an inspiring talk on Animating the Archive in UCSB  last year - i am not sure if the talk has been published

I adore Geoffrey Bowker's work. Reading Sorting Things Out recently was a terrific experience.

I would love to know what a syllabus of database studies looks like. I have been approaching databases from a media studies perspective and believe that i have much to learn from people in Information and Library sciences/studies. 

A workshop on databases would be fabulous - if it emerges as an online encounter, then have it any time, but if it actually takes "place" (forgive me for this innuendo), please wait till the end of this year (2012) so that i can wrap up my fieldwork and come back :) 

 

 

 

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Tara McPherson has also written about race and databases:

 "U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-Century" in Race After the Internet:

http://hastac.org/blogs/michacardenas/2012/03/16/race-after-internet-chapter-1-review

Post-Archive: Scholarship in the Digital Age:

http://library.brown.edu/digitaltalks/lectures/post-archive-scholarship-in-the-digital-age-by-tara-mcpherson/

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I haven't come across Folsom or Hayles yet. Thanks for the recommendation!

 

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What is a database?

I'm guessing that the PMLA articles at least implicitly answer this question. I've had them in my queue for a while, but given this discussion I'm going to spend the time to read through them this weekend. <p><p>

Does anybody here know of someone we can loop in who works with IT databases? Librarians? Can we all do a bit of browsing among the lists of our new fellow scholars for IT professionals // librarians? Are there any archivists on here? <p><p>

To me, the database is a structure of relationships that direct content to a specific purpose.

<p><p>Maybe these work like a network? <p><p>

If we can talk about databases as working like networks, then Actor-Network Theory might be helpful. If you're unfamiliar, Bruno Latour's Reassembling the Social (2007) is a good place to start.

As a preview,  Latour argues that the word "social" is a black box that we use to collapse the relationships between people and things into ill-defined relationships. Instead, he argues that we need to start paying attention to the ways that nonhuman things cause humans to act. For purposes of talking about databases, this means paying as much attention to how a database organizes more than what it organizes. In other words, what does a database do to press data together into a larger database?<p><p>

Lastly, do any of us have a database that we work with that might be helpful to us as a case study so that we're not forced to remain in the abstract here? I work a lot with historical newspaper databases, so I'd propose Chronicling America. CA is by the Library of Congress and doesn't have a paywall so we could avoid any difficulties with that. Are there any other databases anyone might suggest?

 

 

 

 

 

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John, I appreciated this post as I am thinking about bibliographies (a form of data basing texts). As I have been thinking and writing about them, I am struck by not how they capture the past though they certainly do that, but how they project a future by grouping things from the past into something related and often new. I wonder if the cameras and the documentation is less about nostalgia and more a tool to discover new possibilities and make new connections. . . . .
Julie

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Hi Julie. Thanks for your thoughtful response.

If you haven't already read it, there's a great chapter from Siskin & Warner's 'This Is Englightenment,' which I think would be of interest to you. It's authored by Blair and Stallybrass, and it's called 'Mediating Information.' It's pretty short, but I think you'd really enjoy it!

I'll send you a message with the pdf in it.
 
Best,
John
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Hi John, 

Thanks for a thoughtful blog post. I found it interesting to see the way you used databasing as a practice and its potential impacts on how we think (have begun to think) of our memories, pasts, and presents. Indeed, "how many people carry around cameras with them when they go out to bars with their friends. Were there so many cameras at parties before the age of Facebook?" I cannot agree more with you, when you note that the practice of databasing has been there for a long time and it pre-dates computers and yet I do think about what has changed if we think of databases within the technical specificity of digital environments. I am thinking here of the applicability of the term databasing in a different context. I feel often compelled to use the term databasing to describe how indigenous knowledge systems, which are sometimes memories of pasts (often remembered and enacted), get converted into free to travel "information," i.e. they are digitalized. Of course, there is here a sense of politics of knowledge, with respect to what is lost or gained in this process - predictably, knowledge becomes sharable and yet loses its embodied situatedness and intra-acting emergences. Beyond that, my question is - can we call the process databasing or more significantly, what is the difference between databasing and digitalizing/digitizing? Digitizing may not be for the explicit purpose of storage (and so it is not equivalent to the act of 'creating/adding on to' databases), and yet i think there is something more to both these terms which i am perhaps missing.

Would be good to hear what you think. Once again, great post and your research interests are fascinating.

- rahul

 

 

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This came through my email yesterday and I wanted to share it with folks on this discussion string. I am only the messenger. I don't know anything about the event, but thought it would be of interest.

Julie

Hi all,

Please find attached a CFP for ACCUTE 2013, which will be taking place
in Victoria next June immediately prior to the DHSI.

Please send paper proposals (500-700 words), a 100-word abstract of
your presentation, and a 50-word autobiographical statement to
mcgregoh@uoguelph.ca by November 1, 2012.

Best,
Hannah

--
Hannah McGregor
TransCanada Institute Doctoral Fellow
School of English and Theatre Studies
University of Guelph
519-824-4120 x53853

 

“The Genre of the Twenty-First Century”? Databases and the Future of Literary Studies

Paul Hjartarson (Alberta), Hannah McGregor (Guelph), Harvey Quamen (Alberta), and EMiC UA

 

In 2007 a debate emerged on the pages of the PMLA surrounding the incorporation of the database—as tool or metaphor—into literary studies. Ed Folsom, celebrating his and Kenneth Price’s Walt Whitman Archive, argued that their project exemplifies the “database [as] a new genre, the genre of the twenty-first century,” while Jerome McGann rebutted that “The Walt Whitman Archive is not—in any sense that a person meaning to be precise would use—a database at all.”

 

Given that many digital projects have eschewed databases in their effort to, as Susan Brown wrote of the Orlando Project, “retain the fluidity, flexibility, and nuance of continuous prose,” the PMLA debate demands a reconsideration of the nature of databases and their use in literary studies. This panel intervenes in this technological debate. Do current database projects undermine the familiar rubrics of literary studies or productively challenge the disciplinary status quo? How have databases reshaped our understanding of literary history, archives, and digital remediation? Are databases truly inhospitable to narrative? Does a celebration of the database participate in a fantasy of technological neutrality or enforce a new politics? We welcome papers that engage with these questions, or with other dimensions of the database in literary studies.

 

Please submit proposals to Hannah McGregor (mcgregoh@uoguelph.ca).

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Hi, all,

Just wanted to say, I am appreciating this conversation--especially the references. And thinking about a syllabus for database studies is interesting. I think about the active and passive structuring of database. The active part where the structure of the database is visible and the user/programmer has the ability to change it. The passive structuring of database in places like facebook where we only see whispers or traces of the larger structure--and the larger structure can change without our permission. I think both create different experiences for users. These sorts of experiences also shape how we perceive and understand database more broadly. That is, I hear people more skeptical about "saving" things after online losses--either in their own personal computers, reshuffling at online services that they use, etc. How does digital loss affect how we think about database? Do database create a sense of reliability and logic in the world or do they create further mystification and dis-ease?

I want to write more, but need to attend to a few other things.

All best,

Julie

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