Monday, 19 March 2012

Digital Shakespeares: Features of a Database 1

In the previous post I launched a series of post that are going to deal with digital databases presenting Shakespearean texts. I also promised that this time I would list the questions I have used for the analysis. Back then I though it was sufficient to list the questions, but then I had to realize that without some explanation questions cannot fulfil their purpose. So I explained them and found that the explanation would exceed the thousand-word limit of a blogpost, so again I have to chop the meditation up into pieces. Out of the sixteen questions this time I shall explore the first four.

The first three questions gather basic facts about the database. Basic facts or data can, however, be revealing about the agenda of the project, its concept of the user, and, thus, play their significant part in the modes a database processes its cultural signification.

  1. Is it open access or behind the pay-wall?
I am first and foremost interested in databases that are non-profit, Open Access. The reason for this special interest has two reasons: a pragmatic and a somewhat more theoretical one. The pragmatic reason is that my home institution does not have access to most of the profit-oriented databases, or if it does have then the subscriptions are occasionally left without renewal after their expiration. The theoretical reason is that I am very much in agreement with the Open Access movement among digital humanists, and actually act accordingly: with a British colleague we created a very modest OA academic, digital journal (e-Colloquia), I also blog—as you can see—about my research both in English and Hungarian so that colleagues be informed about what I am working on, and those also who do not belong to the guild of scholars but are interested in these matters. Research, experimentation are all about openness, why to bury them behind the pay-wall?

  1. Is it an online or offline database?
Most of the databases are located in the cloud. Nevertheless, there are some that either partially or completely reside on the users hard-drive. Both solutions have advantages and disadvantages, which qualities do not depend on theoretical considerations, but rather depend on the database and its purposes. It is no good to force somebody to download terrabites of information, but it sounds great if there is neat and clever software without fancy display that one can download and manipulate, or even develop on ones laptop.

  1. Is it possible or is it necessary to register, or can it be used without registration?
Again this may be appropriate or useless, but this is also a fact about a database. Occasionally, however, the impression is that if there is a need for registration, the database and the project that lies behind it seem more serious. Sometimes it is more advantageous to be able to register, as there may be more facilities for registered users. Also registration filters users, as the user has to take the trouble to register, and thus implies that it is important for her or him to be a visible member of the community of users.

After the basic information about a database, the next set of questions explores aspects of Transparency. Out of this set, this time I am going to deal with the first and leave the rest for the next post.

  1. Who built the database and who takes responsibility for it?
For a database to be taken seriously as a scholarly, reliable and useful one two considerations seem adamant: responsibility and sustainability. For a database, if expecting serious users, it is of crucial importance to have either a scholar or a team of scholars behind it. An Open Access (not to mention for-profit) project does not mean that anything goes, projects do not need reviewing, should not be open to criticism. All these lead to the concept and virtue of responsibility. Without real human beings shouldering responsibility for their activity, even if it is a noble project of passing on Shakespearean texts and information and features of those texts free of charge to an unknown but yet foreseeable target audience, a project cannot be taken seriously. Scholarly discussion, accountability, expression of critical opinion are vital for a project to be worthy of scholarly attention. If there cannot be found an individual or a team who can participate in a discussion, or whom questions can be addressed to, the air is withdrawn from scholarly objectivity.

As far as sustainability is concerned a nameless enthusiast as the creator and builder of a database will very likely miss the financial resources to create a strictly speaking reliable project. Eagerness burns out after awhile, interest can be lost in a hobby-like project. Institutional affiliation, funding processed by committees all secure reason for believing that the project will survive even after the disappearance of the first love for the project. From the users perspective making use of, thus relying on the outcomes of a research in a database, and the criteria of repeatability are all parts of the problematics surrounding a database. Sustainability seems to be less of a problem for a profit-oriented project, but is not a mission impossible for a project that has institutional and affiliations and opportunities to have a share from national or other funding.

Unfortunately this time I could only cover these first four questions. But even this post may have been beneficial because this could either function as an appetiser or something that will tell you that it is superfluous to read one. Either case is just fine. Time and energy are valuable.

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