This is intended to be the first in an irregular series of articles. The aim of this series is to assist scholars who need to oversee the creation of databases but who know that they must venture into unfamiliar territory to do so. We hope to demystify the process a bit and to give some assistance to those who must enter the computer world, despite feeling unprepared.
Some years ago I was invited to stop in on a project in Greece. When I did so, I found project personnel using a database that I thought was very badly designed. Being a guest, I kept my silence until I discovered that the problems were worse than I had at first realized and that a serious risk was being needlessly run. I spoke up-and stayed on to fix the problems.
The particular problem that stirred me to action was a simple one. Anyone who examined any of the data on screen could, accidentally or intentionally, alter any and all the data visible on screen at the time. Worse yet, even an unintentional change, which might occur quite accidentally while moving the cursor about the screen, was immediately permanent and irreversible. That is, one could only change the data back to the original if one recognized that an inadvertent change had occurred, knew what the original entry was, and re-typed the original data. Nothing could just undo the change. At that project, nobody could look at the data without putting its integrity at risk. The particular problem I found was not terribly unusual; finding some significant problem with a database is distressingly common.
Why are problems so common? I would answer that question with more questions. How do project directors go about the task of computerizing parts of their projects? How do they find the right person to do the work, and how do they evaluate the job that has been done-much less a job still in progress? When a photographer or a draftsman is hired, the results are fairly easy to see, and those results come quickly. On the other hand, computerizing excavation material or a catalog for a collection is a process that may bear no visible fruit for a long time, and even when something is available for examination, evaluating the result is difficult and will take still more time. How, after all, does one judge a database, especially if one is not proficient with computers?
Given the difficulties here, it seems that some suggestions regarding a general approach to creating a computer database may be helpful. So here are some recommendations for those who need to have a database of some sort created for a project-whether an excavation or a catalog-and who are unsure of the right questions to ask, much less the right answers.
These simple bits of advice are not sufficient to take anyone through the creation of a database, but they may help prevent some early problems and start-up anxieties. Future articles will take up some other potential pitfalls. In the meantime, feel free to contact CSA for help with specific database design problems.
-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II
To send comments or questions to the author, please see our email contacts page.
For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities, issues surrounding databases, or the Archaeological Data Archive Project, consult the Subject index.
Next Article: Bryn Mawr Electronic Resources Review
Table of Contents for the Winter, 1999 issue of the CSA Newsletter (Vol. XI, no. 3)
Table of Contents for all CSA Newsletter issues on the Web
Return to CSA Home Page