1: The Basics
For those of us who have survived this long with little more than basic computer skills, our organizational thinking often follows a certain form. Many are accustomed to thinking and organizing files in a hierarchy through a “tree” of folders and sub-folders. But working within databases requires different ways of thinking beyond the traditional hierarchical model–one that necessitates minor adjustments, but which may be valuable for scholars dealing with large quantities of digital information. Thinking like a database may offer scholars many advantages in both the gathering and storing of information, as well as in the analysis of certain sources.
Instead of a hierarchical tree, many databases connect files in networks. With this model, a single item can be linked to many different entities instead of a single parent entity. Rather than placing an item within a folder and changing that file’s physical location, network databases allow a single item to possess multiple connections to other files and folders. Keyword “tags” are the most common example of this form of linking data.
Whether we know it or not, many of us already use “tags” and databases. In some sense, the old card catalogs at the library were a physical form of this type of organization (a book’s card would appear under the author, title, and subjects). iTunes also runs on a tagging system, even if its interface does little to challenge our folder-based thinking. When you add a song to a playlist, you are not changing the physical location of that song, but rather creating a placeholder and link so it appears in a particular playlist or folder. Because the song remains in a single location, it allows users to put that song in multiple playlists.
Tags not only allow users to recall precisely what they’re looking for, but also allow users to recall information based on multiple filters. If you’ve tagged documents by publication year and author, for example, you could recall all items with the tags “Harriet Beecher Stowe” and/or “1852.” Further, because the original item has only one physical location (and not multiple copies in various folders), there is no confusion about different versions of the same file.
There are, of course, downsides to this type of organization. Shane Landrum, a graduate student in History at Brandeis, cautions that excessive attention to detail can at times be more tedious than helpful. “One of the pitfalls I’ve had to avoid is the temptation to get every single item tagged properly,” writes Landrum, who has moved gradually away from tagging in favor of “verbose, search-friendly file names.”
Network databases and tagging may not make sense for all forms of organization, but understanding its capacities may be useful for scholars who are increasingly working with thousands of archival documents, photographs, files, and notes. The two most common general database programs are FileMaker and Microsoft Access.