Week 4: Interactions with Databases

When I started this week’s reading, I kind of dragged my feet. I had a very singular image of what a database was and what it could do. For whatever reason, I was restricting myself to imagining databases as endless accumulations of data, minimalistic in presentation, which could only be decoded by people trained for such a job. The Companion to Digital Humanities did say that the database has an important place in humanist research, “whether it is the historian attempting to locate the causes of a military conflict, the literary critic teasing out the implications of a metaphor, or the art historian tracing the development of an artist’s style,” but it was still difficult to imagine using a database unless for dedicated research.

It wasn’t until I started to casually browse the New York Public Library’s Articles & Databases page (itself something of a database) that I realized the number of purposes databases could serve. Many stored immigration or genealogy information (similar to the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database); others were archives of printed articles. Many of these were interesting enough, but they fit into the descriptions of databases provided by our readings. I wasn’t really surprised by what I found until I saw the listing for the International Movie Database (IMDb), which I recognized. Although IMDb claims to be a source for entertainment news, most people use it to figure out if they really do know an extra in a movie from something else.

It is possible that the majority of databases are used as directories or otherwise in the pursuit of research. To some extent, I have not reconciled my preconceptions about the utility of databases, but I can see how it is possible for a database to function more as a search tool in everyday life. I noticed that a lot of people see iTunes as something of a personal database that they use frequently, which makes me wonder if there are any more traditional databases that could be considered overlooked.