History Database Project (C-base): Thinking through Sources

Our Filemaker Pro template is taking shape in preparation for an initial presentation on January 30.  I’m going to call it “C-base” (short for Corcoran Department of History Research Database).

This week I met with with Ivey Glendon, manager of the Metadata Analysis & Design Unit at the UVA Library.  We discussed the great promise of using C-base as a personalized research portal that would open onto the web to make use of state-of-the-field tools and databases.

We brainstormed ways to create a rich group of fields in the Sources table without overburdening users who might not want or need all of that articulated metadata associated with our books, articles, maps, and archival materials.

The tentative solution: two layouts for the Source table: one called Citations and the other called Sources.  “Citations” has just two fields visible: Footnote and Bibliography.  Each can hold your source citation in the correct Chicago-style format with the least amount of fuss.  If you use Zotero along with C-base, you can simply generate these two kinds of citations and paste them in.  If you don’t, library catalogs and othe databases usually generate formatted citations.  You can use the Library’s Virgo catalog, for instance, to look up a source like this one.  Then pull down the Item Action menu and select “cite,” which takes you to this page, from which you can cut and paste the citation and plop it in these fields.  It looks like the UVA Library is going to start generating these in Chicago style–so little to no editing necessary.

So that’s fine for a basic citation, but I’m thinking it’s worth a bit more time to have the full range metadata for every source within C-base, allowing for much more detailed analysis.  I’m interested in researching a book project called “The Political Economy of the American Revolution” that would involve working with hundreds of original pamphlets.  It will be worthwhile to be able to search through this corpus by distinct fields.  I could then list these pamphlets in order of publication date and visualize them on a timeline with other events, compare them by place of publication, and do some text analysis of the terms in the titles.  But I can’t do any of this if all of the metadata is lumped together in a single text field.  In the Sources table, I’ve recreated the full Zotero field list, which is displayed in the Sources layout.  My provisional plan is to leverage the power of Zotero‘s bibliographic tools for C-base to populate these fields.  Here’s the idea:  add bibliographic items to Zotero collections, output these to a CSV (spreadsheet) file, and then upload this metadata to C-base.  That’s a few extra steps, but in my tests it works well–especially because Filemaker can import data from files and match the column headers of a spreadsheet to its field names.  One could just forget about C-base and do all of this within Zotero without all of the extra work, but I’m just not satisfied with Zotero as a tool for note-taking and analysis.  Because it’s such a great bibliographic management system, however, I’m working to find the best ways to link it to C-base.  We are going to look into RefWorks and see what that has to offer.  This reminds me of David Weinberger’s book, Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web, which argues that the ideal tools for digital communication aggregate particular tools that each do their particular thing quite well.