Medieval Databases

No, silly, databases about medieval things…

There’s been some discussion about medievalist folks thinking about manuscript databases. I have a great deal of interest in the subject–but absolutely no time to do anything about it. If I may offer a few points of professional advice–since I am a database programmer in my day job:

  • Don’t choose a database because it happens to be the one on your computer. I.e., yes, you may well have MS Access on your computer if you’ve got the full Office Suite. No, don’t use it just because it’s there. Consider how you will use the database. Is it for merely personal use? Maybe Access will work for you. Do you want to put it on the web? Think about using MySQL instead. It integrates really well with a dynamic programming language called PHP. In fact, a whole lot of commercial websites are MySQL/PHP integrations. Limited project budget? You’re in luck–MySQL is free… (And so’s a good front-end for Windows here.)
  • Plan your database in advance. The biggest failing of most amateur databases is a lack of planning in the beginning stages. Think about you want to capture. Then, consider what fields make sense together in terms of tables, and what will tie those tables to one another.
  • A major issue that often comes back to haunt beginners is field normalization. In plain English, it means making sure that your data is in small enough bits. Thus, a shelfmark field shouldn’t contain “London, BL, Cotton Nero D IV” Rather, three different fields should have “London”, “British Library” and then “Cotton Nero D IV”. When in doubt, use multiple fields.
  • In terms of front-ends (that is, what a user will see as opposed to the back-end which is what the programmer interacts with) flashy is cool–but achieve stability first. Then go for cool. All the napkin drawing will be pointless if you can’t get your data out the way you want it…
  • Academics spend years learning dead languages and grappling with French poststructuralists, et al.; not all have invested the time in learning the technologies to disseminate what fruits they’ve gathered. When in doubt, talk with your IT department and their techies. Consider taking the money saved from buying a database and get a research assistant fluent in computer…

No, I haven’t been putting any thought into this recently. Why do you ask? Of course it had completely slipped my mind that Mediawiki works off a MySQL back-end… As does WordPress

I’m going to stop talking now…

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