Databases and Audience

This week’s readings discussed the advantages and disadvantages of databases and searching in presenting and conducting historical research. One aspect of these web-based databases that intrigued me was the usability of the database’s interface and the intended audience. In his review of The French Book Trade Enlightenment in Europe, digital historian Sean Takats makes note of the database’s user interface. He states that perhaps in an effort to promote the database to people new to the technology, the search options, such as the numerous choices in the drop down menus, could prohibit easy and quick searches. That project seemed aimed at a wide array of scholars with varying backgrounds in digital media. Also, scholars are increasingly employing these databases in their research, as Caleb McDaniel points out. How should the project leads and database designers decide upon and ensure a user interface that is easy to learn, not overwhelming, yet academically sophisticated?

The Trans-Atlantic Slavery Database Project is an impressive project, providing information on the slave trade spanning centuries and geographies. It contains millions of records in two different databases, one on the actual voyages and trade routes and the other on the enslaved people themselves. However, the user is presented with an overwhelming amount of information when just opening the site’s home page. It’s not easy to decide where to start with not just the database search options, but also the instructions for the database. That project is not easily navigable to a scholar, or anyone, relatively new to digital research methods. The site contains a lot of information about just using the database, and perhaps those lengthy instructions could have been channeled into developing a better interface or database design.

I’ve been thinking about databases more critically since I’ve been involved with the Rebuilding the House for Families Database project at Mount Vernon. This project is both a source-based and method-based database, in that it involves entering in data only relevant to the enslaved community on the plantation. For example, one letter that George Washington wrote to his farm manager might contain one paragraph concerning his enslaved laborers- that is the only paragraph that is entered into the database. It’s still a while until the database is launched online to the interested public, but I’m always thinking about how the database will look on the web and how the public will interact with it. It’s been discussed to present some constructed narratives and search queries for those less familiar with the content and database structure, as well as the entire database open for analysis. I think this is a good idea, because the user interface becomes more accessible and still provides ample opportunity for new historical analysis. The key is to present a database that uses an interface that isn’t too simple, as to seem constrained, or too overwhelming to users less familiar with navigating them.