Quantitative Data case study: EAFSO and Project Quincy

5. Opening Up Databases For Historians

The central challenge for quantitative history is turning historical sources into countable data. In doing this, historiographical practice and the practicalities of data management, design and documentation, should be seen as closely related.

Databases are normative statements about reality... When you design a database you are making proclamations about what matters (and, by implication, what can be safely ignored), and because relational databases are particularly constricting in how you can represent and link data, you are forced to be very explicit and systematic in your choices...

Making data structures (and the theoretical decisions that underly them) transparent through good documentation is a first step toward educating our colleagues and students about the material they are likely to find available in digital formats. (Bauer, 'Fielding history')

Bauer's work provides examples of the "next generation" of databases and quantitative data management tools for historians, built using open source and web-based applications rather than proprietary desktop software, and of small-scale but significant projects that historians can pursue without large amounts of funding and with relatively modest technical skills.

Learning the practical skills required to develop data management tools of one's own is still a significant investment. But it makes it possible for historians to build - and adapt and extend - according to the needs of their own sources and research questions and it facilitates collaborative practices and publishing data online. It helps data preservation and sharing because the data is created in completely open source formats as well as being shared under open access licenses, and it enables the extension of "data sharing" beyond datasets of primary sources, to sharing the data creation tools themselves.