Seeking a system

I’ve been trying to find a way of organizing my manuscript sources for the dissertation in a way which is readable, makes sense, and can be exported to do interesting things if the need arises.

At present, most of my sources are in a spreadsheet that I use to record documents as I photograph in the archive, with columns for year, month, day, sender, receiver, gist, and archival information; I add the transcription later. I had set up what is essentially a vertical spreadsheet to capture essential data in addition to a large text field for the transcription, but that was in a rather old version of FileMakerPro and only had enough records to serve as a test case.

(I used to be very good at building relational databases in FileMaker, making use of the special features and functions, etc. I have a fondness for it because as a kid I would play around with the database option in ClarisWorks, which FileMaker grew out of.)

A new version of FileMaker, even at the individual educator price-point, is well above what I’m willing to pay, and it feels a bit odd to use FileMaker after years of hanging out with people who write their own code. Thus, I have been considering my options. Ideally I’d like a relational database with tables for individuals, letters, locations, and repositories (the last is negotiable), and the ability to export data as a csv so I can plug the information into something like R to play around with it. If nothing else I would like a large text field with formatting options for entering and reading transcriptions.

Airtable, which is hosted online and thus would be accessible from any computer (and backed up externally) does not have a good way to view large text blocks, as far as I can tell, so it’s out of the running.

I already use Zotero to keep track of secondary sources, and it is apparently possible to get metadata out of it and into a csv. However, the notes field has always felt small to me and there is not (currently) a place to track the locations of the author and recipient of a letter except within the transcription itself. It’s not ideal but is still an option.

Another option is Omeka S, which is still in beta. It has the ability to create resource templates with whatever elements you want from various existing vocabularies, has media storage and a mapping plugin, and it is possible to import from CSVs and output via API. The main sticking points are that I’d have to come up with a standardized “title” for the documents, and coming up with a specific mapping of my current metadata fields to a mix of Dublin Core and Bibliographic Ontology elements. Of the options that don’t require me (re)learning how to code, Omeka S is the biggest contender after just continuing to use a spreadsheet.

There is a forthcoming system that looks promising – Tropy – but it’s not yet in beta and I need something sooner rather than later (maybe for the next project?)

I could, of course, try to remember my lessons in PHP and MySQL from the autumn of 2013, when I built a small but functional database with a sample set of data. Or I could try and learn Ruby or Django in order to fork and modify Project Quincy to suit my own needs. I’m not entirely sure about the cost/benefit of that in terms of time.

At this point, I’m sticking to my spreadsheet for metadata (currently using Google Sheets, although I know how fickle Google can be) and keeping transcriptions in a separate location. Any suggestions of alternate (well documented) open source database solutions are welcome.

Liverpool’s overlooked history?

The archives and libraries were closed today, so I took myself down to the riverfront to look around some of the National Museums Liverpool, specifically the Museum of Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum and the International Slavery Museum. The latter is currently located on the 3rd floor of the Maritime Museum, although it will someday have its own building.

They are very nice museums. The Museum of Liverpool only recently opened, and the outside is still being completed. The Maritime Museum opened in the 1980s. Both focus primarily on the history of Liverpool since about 1850, emphasizing urban development, Cunard and the Titanic, World War II, and Merseybeat. The International Slavery Museum, which grew out of an exhibit on the Atlantic Slave trade, is by nature of its subject centered on the 18th century, although it emphasizes that slavery is not merely a historical institution.

I enjoyed nosing about the museums in a general sort of way, but I confess I was disappointed in the lack of information on Georgian Liverpool. There is a timeline exhibit in the Museum of Liverpool, but the 18th century is in the same case as the 16th, with very little space given to it. Liverpool does not seem reluctant to talk about the fact that slavery played a large role in its development into a major commercial center, but the town during that era is largely left out of most narratives. With one notable and very enjoyable exception.

When I entered the Merseyside Maritime Museum, I noticed a banner with an 18th century looking map promoting a tour of the Old Dock. Curious, I wandered over to the desk and discovered a brochure, which confirmed that the Old Dock Tour related to an 18th century dock – as I was to learn, the first commercial wet dock in the western world. The tour required a booking but no fee, so I put down my name. I expected some sort of walk around the commercial area now laying over the old dock site, with some “this was here” comments. Instead, the tour goes to one corner of the Old Dock, all of which was preserved when the dock was closed in the 1820s. It is now the site of an archaeological excavation and was apparently featured on Time Team (a British TV show).*

I had fun. The two guides were informative, friendly, and well-versed in the topic. There were only two other people, local gentlemen, on the tour. After being conducted into the dig site (through a car park, under the square outside John Lewis in Liverpool One), we were given a brief lecture and then allowed to read the interpretive panels and ask questions. This was more than the glimpses of Georgian Liverpool I’d gotten in the museum buildings, this was a visit to a remnant of it. What’s more, I know that James Maury’s consulate office was about a block from the Old Dock, so I felt like I knew a little more about the Liverpool which he experienced (by the 1810s, the Dock was full of sewage, so I imagine he was well aware of its proximity).


*I feel compelled to point out that the dock was closed because it was full of sewage, when it was re-opened as an archaeological dig there was still organic matter remaining, but the tv people didn’t show up until the professionals had dug through layers of Georgian excrement.

(Please forgive any formatting oddities – I’m using the WordPress app on my tablet for the first time)

Research travel: choose your tools

I will be spending the first week in June in the UK, conducting (preliminary) research. I plan to collect material related to my dissertation and also scope out the archives enough so that I can determine whether it’s worthwhile to return. This, and future trips (in state, thankfully), have me thinking about what tools I want to carry with me.

I was initially planning to only carry my iPad and its keyboard case to take notes and run a spreadsheet of photos taken which I could use when I got home. However, I will now also be Skyping in to class one night, and I’m a bit concerned about backing up my photos. I know that I can download the SD card onto my iPad and then upload them to Dropbox, but I have yet to figure out a good way of selecting 50-100 photos at a time on the iPad.

I could, of course, bring my laptop. My 15 inch, 6 lb, late 2008 MacBook pro which slows down running Chrome and TweetDeck at the same time. Now that I have a desktop (long story), I’d like to replace this with something lighter and more portable that I can use in archives or around town, but which doesn’t need to be able to run large-scale software programs. If I had a fairy godmother, or a winning Powerball ticket, I’d get a MacBook Air. It’s not that I’m wedded to Apple as a company or even as an OS, it’s just that I dislike Windows OS and have been using Apple products since the mid 1980s.

A much cheaper alternative would be a Chromebook (probably the Samsung model XE303C12). It’s got a small, solid-state hard drive, only 16GB, but it also has two USB ports, which would allow me to transfer files from my SD card to cloud storage or even an external drive. In some ways, especially given the limitations of the Chrome-based OS, it might seem little different from the iPad. On the other hand, it does have USB ports and file selection using a mouse rather than a touchscreen.

I’m open to advice from computer geeks, fellow researchers and digital humanists. What do you take when you travel, and what would you take if someone gave you a winning powerball ticket?