Databases Before Digital

Among the many cultural heritage materials that are now in digital form are things that were organized as “data” in some sense even before they were digital: reference works, indexes, directories, concordances, censuses, inventories, card catalogues, etc. I’ve worked on several projects that make some use of such materials, and they present interesting challenges, practical and conceptual. If we make a database now from resources created by a historical bureaucracy, how much of that bureaucracy do we still have to negotiate? If others are interested, I would enjoy a conversation that could range from questions of what we can learn from how and why people organized “data” before digital methods, to what we can learn from media studies, and not least to what kinds of practical projects we might imagine. It would be especially interesting to try to bridge archival, library, scholarly, and technological perspectives. Whenever I browse the Internet Archive, for example, I’m struck by how much past effort of predigital “data modeling” (we might call it) is both available and hidden in ways that full-text search and text mining tools don’t begin to do justice to. What else?

Categories: General |

About Douglas Knox

My path to digital work in the humanities started in the late 1990s when I was a grad student in history working on the Encyclopedia of Chicago at the Newberry Library. I ended up working on a series of digital public humanities projects at the Newberry, from Omeka exhibitions to the Chicago Foreign Language Press Survey. Today I'm at the Humanities Digital Workshop at Washington University, and enjoy working with faculty and students on range of projects.

2 Responses to Databases Before Digital

  1. Daron Dierkes says:


    I think a good place to start might be with the ISIS Current Bibliography, which has been going strong for a century. Stephen Weldon in Oklahoma is currently leading a very interesting project to integrate all previous organizational schemes into a shared database:

    The idea being that users can look at the collected bibliography through any of these older arrangements, or they can create their own scheme by adjusting various fields and saving it. One corpora, many ways to see it.

  2. Patrick Cuba says:

    I think the most important question is this:

    “why people organized “data” before digital methods”

    Reasoning is the most sought and least annotated thing.

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