Database Literacy

Benjamin Schmidt at Princeton has written an excellent description of databases in digital humanities research.  Along with outlining how databases work in the mediation of humanities knowledge, he also highlights the need for data literacy among humanities scholars.

Still, all this infrastructural action is mostly behind the scenes for historians. That’s a bad thing. The real scholarly infrastructure is still going up at J-stor and Google books and everywhere else with a primary audience of social scientists, or the book-buying public, or some vaguely defined audience that don’t have the infrastructural needs that historians might. Any small town in the 19th century knew that the most important task they had was to get the railroad tracks running through their town. Historians need to figure out just what they can get out of texts that they aren’t, and how they can ensure the emerging indexes and database infrastructure leads us to where we want to go.

Having recently built a 14GB database of historical climate data based on CRU’s ASCII raster files and finding that I also needed 10GB of indexes to make it work, I can also echo Benjamin’s points about the importance and primacy of indexes in our modern data culture.

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