Monday, 2 April 2012

Digital Shakespeares: Features of a Database 3

This is the last but one post in the series “Digital Shakespeares: Features of a Database. The previous posts presented and explained the first eight questions of the list that I used when assessing databases containing Shakespeare’s texts. The first eight questions explored some basic facts and the documentation of the database. This time the focus will be on another aspect that I label as flexibility. This is an important aspect, as it makes a database more usable if it can be bent to the researchers’ expectations and interests. Before this larger area of questions there are two extra ones that pertain to the ease of the usage of a database.

  •  9.  Is the interface clear and logical?

    The question about whether the interface is clear and logical does not invite an answer in a form of a subjective aesthetic judgement, but rather reflection about the pragmatic aspect of the interface. What I am interested in here is whether one could without much thinking and many mistaken steps navigate from one action to another with relative ease. Nevertheless, I am aware that this feature of a database is a rather subjective one, as something that seems illogical and complicated for one user may well be straightforward and simple for another. Yet hopefully the response to this question will not reflect on the interface in isolation, but will keep an eye on other databases and even other applications, and then subjectivity can be avoided via experience and comparison.

    1. Is it possible to create a researchers room?
    A researcher “room” is a handy opportunity if the database is an online one. It seems handy if one can stop working whenever it is necessary without losing the findings of the then current research, and can continue working when it is possible again. This feature is also important as this may be the cyber-spatial “room” where one may share the results with colleagues and may expect some reaction from them to her/his work. A researcher “room” can be a place that anybody can, may customize to her/his expectations, work-method and needs, can leave notes and reflections on where one is in the process of research.

    The theoretical problem that is addressed by the following questions seems to be the following. A database most of the time is built for one type of research, which is no problem as how can one foresee what other researchers would like to do with a particular database. One may well argue that the virtue of a database is that it does what it promises in the best way, and I agree with this argument. An equally powerful claim could be, however, that if a database is tuned for only one type of research, naturally the one that best suits the builder, then why and how could it be used by other researchers with either slightly, or completely different purposes? So in this Kantian or Pyrrhonian situation, where there are two equally powerful claims in opposition, I would like to vote for some sort of a flexibility providing more opportunities than the ones envisioned by the builders. I can imagine that a database that can be adapted to a variety of purposes will be the one that will attract researchers’ attention.

    1. Can the digital text be downloaded?
    Sometimes it seems beneficial to be able to download the text that one works with. This adds to the usability of a database, as it can easily happen that the analytical tools of a database do not harmonize completely with the needs of a researcher. It is then beneficial if the text, or texts can be downloaded and fed into another search engine. This may well be the case with absolutely cleansed texts to be used with independent text analysis tools, or with deeply marked-up texts, when the mark-up is deeper than what the facilities of the database allow to explore. In this latter case it is also possible that queries tuned for specific aspects can be executed elsewhere than within the database.

    1. Can the results of the query be saved, downloaded?
    It may well be fruitful if the findings can be saved and downloaded to be deployed elsewhere than within the application. This may be appropriate if results in one database are to be compared with the findings in another one, or if to be arranged in another way than what is occasioned by an application. A third scenario when saving, downloading is fruitful may be when one intends to insert, or copy-paste the results of the query into an article, paper, blogpost. (Only between round brackets do I dare to insert here, that as a Zotero fan, it would be nice if a database could be linked to Zotero, and then referencing would be a matter of clicking here and there. I am aware that this is only the lazy researchers dream…)

    1. Is the source-code open, i.e. can the search tools be modified?
    This attribute is something that is both beneficial and nice. It is beneficial because the tools may be tuned for the analysis of texts from another database without starting the building of the search-tool from nothing. Naturally it can happen that it is easier to start from nothing, but it can happen as well that coding means just fine-tuning. The open-source code is nice too, as it tells the user that the builder trusts his/her users, shares with them everything, admits that the application can be developed, used elsewhere and in other ways than first envisioned.

    To sum up, this time I pondered about the features of a database that I labelled “flexibility.” Flexibility of a database lies in whether a researcher can or cannot adapt the texts included in the database, the analytical tools to her / his needs. Flexibility is not only important because the database then will be one that may serve a variety of purposes but also because this way it will attract more users. Having, thus, accounted for this feature of a database what remain for the next post are the attributes that I classify as “interdisciplinary openness.”

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