Vol. X, No. 1

Spring, 1997

A Catalog Is Not A Database

H. Eiteljorg, II

At the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in New York this winter there was a session about pottery catalogs chaired by Professor Susan Rotroff. Speakers discussed the best ways to deal with pottery catalogs, and their papers were even posted on the Internet before the meeting. Ms. Rotroff had asked that the papers be completed well in advance; so they were put on the Web and are still available at http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~classics/boonbane.htm.

Ms. Rotroff also encouraged readers to respond in advance of the meeting, and, after reading the papers on the Web, three other people and I did respond. I thought that, when electronic publishing had been mentioned, the notion of electronic publication had been misunderstood or mis-stated. (The responses to the papers are also available through the Web site.) It seemed that those who mentioned electronic publication of catalogs thought of an electronic publication as nothing more or less than a page-by-page reproduction of the paper catalog on a computer screen. In that view, an electronic version of the catalog differs from the paper version only by virtue of the fact that one is read on a screen and the other on paper. This is actually a fairly common view of electronic publication, and I have seen it expressed in various places, some purporting to offer rather sophisticated views of electronic publication.

In my view, though, an electronic publication should be far more than an electronic version of a paper document. A good electronic presentation of information about pottery, for instance, should be a database, complete with search mechanisms to make it responsive to the needs of the users - not just the needs of the authors. I was unable to attend the session in New York, but, from all I was able to learn about the discussion, it seemed that many people are confused about the distinction between a true electronic publication and a catalog presented on screen. Therefore, it seemed a good idea to try to create a sample database from a catalog to illustrate the differences clearly. I thought it would be a good idea to start with a superior catalog, try to convert a portion of it into a good database, and then demonstrate the results.

Professor Jeremy Rutter's recent publication of the pottery from Lerna (Lerna: Volume III, The Pottery of Lerna IV) seems a good catalog to use, not only because it is an excellent catalog but also because it exists in electronic form at the American School of Classical Studies Publication Office. Of course, the electronic form is only text, but I hope to be able to convert parts of it into a good database without retyping too much. Mr. Rutter and the Director of Publications for the American School, Ms. Kerri Cox, are both eager to see such an experiment as well, and they are assisting with this work. We all hope to have a good, complex (but only partial) database of the pottery from Lerna by the time the AIA annual meeting occurs next year in Chicago. The database will be demonstrated there - with the publication at hand for comparison - and we hope to have demonstration versions there on floppy disks or available for downloading. We hope to encourage careful comparisons of a true electronic publication - a database scholars can experiment with at home - and a standard paper catalog. With such a comparison, the advantages and disadvantages for scholars who use the two information sources should become clear. Furthermore, individual scholars will be able to become more familiar with the use of such a database at their leisure and to decide its merits and demerits over time, rather than in the length of time needed for a demonstration. One likely finding is that the users of databases will need some minimal but not insignificant training. Another is that users of the database will be better able to ask and answer unique questions. Time will tell if these expectations are borne out and what other findings will turn up.

For other Newsletter articles concerning issues surrounding the the design and use of databases or the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the subject index.

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