History Database Project: Creating an “Entity Relationship Diagram”

To build the History Research Database in FileMaker, we need to define our “entities”–that is, the core sorts of data that will make up the database. Entities are also known as “tables.”  We might think of an entity as a single spreadsheet: each row in the spreadsheet is a separate record in the database; each column is a field, or a general type of data. The power of a relational database is that we can put these different entities together to build searches, generate reports, and organize activities.  Here’s my first crack at an Entity Relationship Diagram (ERD) with three possible fields in each table (there will be many more in fact).

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I propose four entities in the database:

Sources: information about books, articles, archival materials, etc.

Objects: research object we want to store and keep track of, such as: documents, maps, images, graphs, PDFs, statistical tables, website URLs, etc.

Notes: our annotations, comments, and transcriptions of sources and objects, tagged with subject headings and linked to writing and digital projects.

Projects: what we produce from our analysis of our sources, objects, and notes, such as chapters, books, articles, visualizations, annotated bibliographies, etc.

As this ERD shows, each entity has a defined “one-to-many” relationship with at least one other entity.  Getting this right is the key to making a relational database work.  The connectors indicate that every Source in the database can have many Objects (for example, I recently took a bunch of photos of maps in the wonderful Historical Atlas of Maine: one book, many maps), but not the other way around.  I can take many Notes from this book, my Source, but I’m going to limit myself to no more than one Source per Note.  As I build my Projects, I will probably associate many Notes and Objects with a particular Project, but not the other way around.  (This last set of relationships is a bit tricky, and I will possibly have to revise).

So, for now, this is my presumed ERD for the History Research Database.  Comments?  Suggestions?  I’ll keep working on this and post a full diagram with all of the fields as I make more progress.

History Database Project: Snap Judgment on “Heurist”

Heurist’s “research-driven data management system allows any confident researcher or data manager to design, create, manage, analyse and publish their own richly-structured database(s) within hours, through a simple web interface, without need of programmers or consultants.”

Pros: It’s sophisticated, powerful, supported by a user community, free, and offers online storage.  Lots of flexibility with importing data; syncs with Zotero; and built for humanities research. Lots of specialized tools and templates for particular research databases. Helpline is available for assistance.  Can set up multi-user database for group projects.

Cons: This is a complex tool with a high barrier to entry and lots of functions and interface items to sift through before one can create a usable history research database for general note taking. Can’t use it offline, and works slowly online.

Verdict: I could see learning this interface and building the History Research Database on it.  It seems like a really interesting project, especially with the many visualization tools built into it.  FileMaker offers layout and appearance control, while Heurist doesn’t.  There are too many specialized fields for my taste, and I think inputting data would take a long time.  FileMaker offers speed and elegance and especially a high degree of control over layouts. I think I can build a better notes template that all could use and modify with FileMaker. The advantage of not having to know how to manage entities and relational tables doesn’t really apply since I’m planning on building these myself anyway.


History Database Project: Reviewing Resources

As I get started developing a FileMaker Pro database for history research, I’m going through the “Learning FileMaker 16” tutorial on Lynda.com, a subscription service offered through my university library.  But I also want to investigate some other resources that might point the way forward.  I’ll be consulting:

DiRT (Digital Research Tools), a “registry of digital research tools for scholarly use.”

The Institute for Historical Research’s free online course on “Designing databases for historical research.”

Ansley T. Erickson’s “Historical Research and the Problem of Categories: Reflections on 10,000 Digital Notecards (Fall 2011 version).”  

The FileMaker template (“starter solution” in their lingo) called “Research Notes.”

When reviewing these resources, my process here is simple:  I ask, Is this the way I want to take notes, keep track of sources and objects, and plan projects?  Yes?  Great!  I’m done.  No?  Can I learn something by clarifying what doesn’t work for me?  Can I make use of this tool for a particular purpose or replicate the things about it that I like?