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In January 2013 we launched our first comprehensive online training course that enables you to learn why you might wish to use databases for historical research and how you would go about it.  The course takes you through the basics of creating the databases and shows you the main tools that can be used to analyse the data.

Building and Using Databases for Historical Research is a non-tutor led course – meaning that it can be taken at any time and completed at your own pace.  The fact that there is no tutor involved does mean that there are fewer opportunities for feedback, but there are forums for fellow students to discuss their issues and questions and we do keep a close eye out for any technical problems or misunderstandings coming out of the way part of the course is presented.  That said, we do offer feedback on the final exercise – which can be submitted at any time, so there is an opportunity to check that you have understood things properly.

The brief segment below comes from the second module in the course – looking at filtering data.

 

2. Filter by Form

The Filter by Form approach to filtering data in a table is much more flexible that Filtering by Selection, in that it allows you to specify the criteria to be used rather than selecting it from a value in a field. More importantly, this tool allows you to specify a variety of different kinds of criteria, as well as choosing more than one criterion in combination to apply in your filter.

The Filter by Form tool is located in the ‘Advanced’ menu of the Filter tools. When you click on this tool the ‘form’ appears into which you can add the criteria that you wish to apply to the table. The form itself looks like a blank row in the table, which can be a little confusing, but it is simply a means by which you can apply criteria to one or more fields.   

 B4iii

Filter by Form options

For example if you wished to filter your People table records to only show you the information for women with the surname Smith, you would enter the criteria:

  B4iv

Filter by Form criteria

 

Note that the quotation marks are added automatically, unless you have spaces in your criteria, in which case you will need to add them manually.

When you toggled the form ‘on’, you would only see the 65 records of women with the surname ‘Smith’ – that is, only those records where both criteria were matched. When adding criteria into a Filter form in this way, it is important to remember that if your criterion contains spaces, then your criterion needs to be enclosed with double quotation marks (“): for example the criterion:

All Hallows Honey Lane

will return an error message when you try to apply the filter, whilst

“All Hallows Honey Lane”

will work perfectly well.

 

To find out more about this course check out our research training pages.

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Cover smallThe Institute of Historical Research now offer a wide selection of digital research training packages designed for historians and made available online on History SPOT.  Most of these have received mention on this blog from time to time and hopefully some of you will have had had a good look at them.  These courses are freely available and we only ask that you register for History SPOT to access them (which is a free and easy process).  Full details of our online and face-to-face courses can also be found on the IHR website. Here is a brief look at one of them.

Designing Databases for Historical Research was one of two modules that we launched alongside History SPOT late in 2011.  Unlike most courses on databases that are generic in scope, this module focuses very much on the historian and his/her needs.  The module is written in a handbook format by Dr Mark Merry.  Mark runs our face to face databases course and is very much the man to go to for advice on building databases to house historical data.

The module looks at the theory behind using databases rather than showing you how to build them.  It is very much a starting point, a place to go to before embarking on the lengthy time that databases require of their creators.  Is your historical data appropriate for database use or should a different piece of software be used?  What things should you consider before starting the database?  Getting it right from the very beginning does save you a lot of time and frustration later on.

If you need more convincing then here is a snippet from the module, where Mark discusses the importance of thinking about the data and database before you even open up the software.

***

 

The very first step in the formal process for designing a database is to decide what purpose(s) the database is to serve. This is something that is perhaps not as obvious or as straightforward as one might expect, given that databases in the abstract can indeed serve one or more of a number of different kinds of function. In essence, however, there are three types of function that the historian is likely to be interested in:

  • Data management
  • Record linkage
  • Pattern elucidation/aggregate analysis

Each of these functions is a goal that can be achieved through shaping of the database in the design process, and each will require some elements of the database design to be conducted in specific ways, although they are by no means mutually exclusive. And this latter point is an important one, given that most historians will want to have access to the full range of functionality offered by the database, and will likely engage in research that will require all three of the listed types of activity. Or, to put it another way, many historians are unlikely to know precisely what it is they want to do with their database at the very beginning of the design process, which is when these decisions should be taken. This is why, as we shall see later in this section, many historians are inclined to design databases which maximise flexibility in what they can use them for later on in the project (a goal which will come at the price of design simplicity).

The data management aspect of the database is in many cases almost a by-product of how the database works, and yet it is also one of its most powerful and useful functions. Simply being able to hold vast quantities of information from different sources as data all in one place, in a form that makes it possible to find any given piece of information and see it in relation to other pieces of information, is a very important tool for the historian. Many historians use a database for bibliographical organisation, allowing them to connect notes from secondary reading to information taken from primary sources and being able to trace either back to its source. The simpler tools of database software can be used to find information quickly and easily, making the database a robust mechanism for holding information for retrieval.

***

Unlike the other courses on History SPOT this particular module also doubles as the unofficial first part of a much more comprehensive training course on Databases for Historians, which we have made available online.  This larger course is not free but well worth the price and effort.  By the end of that course you should be ready to use databases for analysing almost any kind of historical data that you might wish to use it with.   There is more information on that course on the module pages and also on the IHR website (as listed below)

If you would like to have a look at this module please register for History SPOT for free and follow the instructions (http://historyspot.org.uk).  If you would like further information about this course, and the others that the IHR offer please have a look at our Research Training pages on the IHR website.

 

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The Institute of Historical Research now offer a wide selection of digital research training packages designed for historians and made available online on History SPOT.  Most of these have received mention on this blog from time to time and hopefully some of you will have had had a good look at them.  These courses are freely available and we only ask that you register for History SPOT to access them (which is a free and easy process).  Full details of our online and face-to-face courses can also be found on the IHR website. Here is a brief look at one of them.

When the Institute of Historical Research began building research training modules online, we decided fairly early on that they needed to be much more than just text.  In the Tex Mining for Historians module we included various videos to help learners to improve their knowledge of the subject.  One of these was a very simple introduction to natural language processing.

This video – available on the course and on vimeo is very short and discusses natural language processing (or NLP for short) in very basic terms.  This is intentional as the rest of this section of the module looks at the subject in much more detail.

What is Natural Language Processing? from History SPOT on Vimeo.

If you would like to have a look at this module please register for History SPOT for free and follow the instructions (http://historyspot.org.uk).  If you would like further information about this course, and the others that the IHR offer please have a look at our Research Training pages on the IHR website.

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A sample page from the Databases course

A sample page from the Databases course

The Institute of Historical Research now offer a wide selection of digital research training packages designed for historians and made available online on History SPOT.  Most of these have received mention on this blog from time to time and hopefully some of you will have had had a good look at them.  These courses are freely available and we only ask that you register for History SPOT to access them (which is a free and easy process).  Full details of our online and face-to-face courses can also be found on the IHR website. Here is a brief look at one of them.

Designing Databases for Historical Research was one of two modules that we launched alongside History SPOT late in 2011.  Unlike most courses on databases that are generic in scope, this module focuses very much on the historian and his/her needs.  The module is written in a handbook format by Dr Mark Merry.  Mark runs our face to face databases course and is very much the man to go to for advice on building databases to house historical data.

The module looks at the theory behind using databases rather than showing you how to build them.  It is very much a starting point, a place to go to before embarking on the lengthy time that databases require of their creators.  Is your historical data appropriate for database use or should a different piece of software be used?  What things should you consider before starting the database?  Getting it right from the very beginning does save you a lot of time and frustration later on.

If you need more convincing then here is a snippet from the module, where Mark discusses the importance of thinking about the data and database before you even open up the software.

 ***

The very first step in the formal process for designing a database is to decide what purpose(s) the database is to serve. This is something that is perhaps not as obvious or as straightforward as one might expect, given that databases in the abstract can indeed serve one or more of a number of different kinds of function. In essence, however, there are three types of function that the historian is likely to be interested in:

  • Data management
  • Record linkage
  • Pattern elucidation/aggregate analysis

 

Each of these functions is a goal that can be achieved through shaping of the database in the design process, and each will require some elements of the database design to be conducted in specific ways, although they are by no means mutually exclusive. And this latter point is an important one, given that most historians will want to have access to the full range of functionality offered by the database, and will likely engage in research that will require all three of the listed types of activity. Or, to put it another way, many historians are unlikely to know precisely what it is they want to do with their database at the very beginning of the design process, which is when these decisions should be taken. This is why, as we shall see later in this section, many historians are inclined to design databases which maximise flexibility in what they can use them for later on in the project (a goal which will come at the price of design simplicity).

The data management aspect of the database is in many cases almost a by-product of how the database works, and yet it is also one of its most powerful and useful functions. Simply being able to hold vast quantities of information from different sources as data all in one place, in a form that makes it possible to find any given piece of information and see it in relation to other pieces of information, is a very important tool for the historian. Many historians use a database for bibliographical organisation, allowing them to connect notes from secondary reading to information taken from primary sources and being able to trace either back to its source. The simpler tools of database software can be used to find information quickly and easily, making the database a robust mechanism for holding information for retrieval.

 ***

Unlike the other courses on History SPOT this particular module also doubles as the unofficial first part of a much more comprehensive training course Building and Using Databases for Historians, which we have made available online.  This larger course is not free but well worth the price and effort.  By the end of that course you should be ready to use databases for analysing almost any kind of historical data that you might wish to use it with.   There is more information on that course on the module pages and also on the IHR website (as listed below)

If you would like to have a look at this module please register for History SPOT for free and follow the instructions (http://historyspot.org.uk).  If you would like further information about this course, and the others that the IHR offer please have a look at our Research Training pages on the IHR website.

Read Full Post »

The Institute of Historical Research now offer a wide selection of digital research training packages designed for historians and made available online on History SPOT.  Most of these have received mention on this blog from time to time and hopefully some of you will have had had a good look at them.  These courses are freely available and we only ask that you register for History SPOT to access them (which is a free and easy process).  Full details of our online and face-to-face courses can also be found on the IHR website. Here is a brief look at one of them.

When the Institute of Historical Research began building research training modules online, we decided fairly early on that they needed to be much more than just text.  In the Tex Mining for Historians module we included various videos to help learners to improve their knowledge of the subject.  One of these was a very simple introduction to natural language processing.

This video – available on the course and on vimeo is very short and discusses natural language processing (or NLP for short) in very basic terms.  This is intentional as the rest of this section of the module looks at the subject in much more detail.

What is Natural Language Processing? from History SPOT on Vimeo.

If you would like to have a look at this module please register for History SPOT for free and follow the instructions (http://historyspot.org.uk).  If you would like further information about this course, and the others that the IHR offer please have a look at our Research Training pages on the IHR website.

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Two new inter-related free modules are now available on the History SPOT platform beginning a series on digital tools.

The first is about semantic mark-up – this is a beginner’s guide to marking up a text in XML so that it is searchable for information pertinent to historical research.  Semantic mark-up is extremely common in History digital projects.  Take for example the Old Bailey Proceedings Online or TAMO (The Acts and Monuments Online, otherwise known as the John Foxe Project).  Both websites have marked up their texts so that you can find specific persons, places, and types of information from an index or via a search engine.  Our module will guide you from beginning to end of that process from the starting point of no knowledge whatsoever (beyond some basic knowledge of using computers).

The same is true for the second module, on the topic of text mining.  Where semantic mark-up enables you to find known information more easily, text mining gives you the opportunity to add additional structure to unstructured text (or texts) to enable research on relationships otherwise difficult to identify.  For example, text mining would enable you to explore a large body of text, such as the Old Bailey records, and ask questions about associations: does, for example, mention of wine or beer appear most often with acts of violence or illness?  You would presume it does, but text mining will allow you to confirm that fact.

Now, text mining is undoubtedly a more specialist tool and to use it properly requires some extensive technical expertise.  Our module tries to introduce you to the subject lightly and builds upon the training given for semantic mark-up.  Beginners should be able to work their way through the module and understand what they are being asked to do and why.  The module won’t tell you everything there is to know about text mining, nor will it train you in using development tools (although it will show you where you can go to get some basic knowledge on these).  What it will do is show you what is involved and what you might get out of it before taking extensive time to learn the tools in-depth.

Sample page from the Text Mining module

In addition to these two digital tools training modules, we have a tool audit (a list of various digital tools with a little introductory information) and a series of case studies.  These are on the topics of semantic data, text mining, visualisation, linked data, and cloud computing.

These training materials are all outcomes from the JISC funded HISTORE project.  For more details of that project please visit the HISTORE Blog and the Digital Skills workshop podcasts on History SPOT.

 

To view the Digital Tools course materials click here.

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I have been waiting to write that title for well over a year now.  After a delay of over 5 months History SPOT is finally ready to launch!   

Research Seminars, Lectures and Conferences

History SPOT is brimming full of podcasts from IHR seminars, conferences and lectures from 2009 to the present.  In addition to our extensive archives you will have access to all new podcasts from the IHR in the coming months and have the opportunity to discuss, comment upon and debate their content online.   

SPOTLight

In addition to the podcasts themselves History SPOT contains an archive of SPOT Newsletter reviews and abstracts which have thus far appeared on this blog along with various other additional resources.  The SPOT Newsletter will be growing over the coming months adding opinions, additional facts and information, and mini bibliographies.

Historical Research Training

History SPOT presents to you for free and for the first time material from our research training courses and from our expertises as a research institute.  Initially we have provided two research handbooks: one on the subject of Databases for Historians and another on podcasting.  More will follow soon.

Interact

History SPOT is not just a place to search for content it is also designed so that you can interact with the subject matter.  When you listen to one of our podcasts let us and other users know what you think.  Is there something that you disagree with or do you have something to add to what our speakers discuss? 

In addition you can create your own profiles, take part in social networking through Groups and Friends and create basic web pages.  You can also write your own blog posts and discuss our activities with each other in various group forums. 

Click below to access the site

 

 

History SPOT will be in Beta Mode for approximately one month while we iron out the final glitches and errors, however we would very much appreciate your feedback.  Do you like the new site?  Is there anything that you don’t like?  What could we do better?  Is there anything missing?  Please do let us know at History.spot@sas.ac.uk or through the Contact UsLINK option on History SPOT.

At some point soon I will write up another blog post here about the road to launch but in the meantime please do register for History SPOT, have a look around, and let us know what you think.

I hope you enjoy the site!

Matt

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And finally…

This is my final post relating the discussion held at our June workshop on Developing Online Research Training and Course Delivery.  I hope you have found it interesting although you will probably have seen already that the discussions posed more questions and difficulties than they answered.  Today I will sum up the discussion held on course structure:

Most of the issues involved in planning an online-only course are pedagogical in nature, and in many ways are similar to those that arise when planning face-to-face courses. An example of this includes the need to control the ‘learning curve’: with more guidance and ‘hand holding’ provided in the earlier components of a course (especially the exercises) changing as the course progresses so that the student receives less direction and are forced to think critically and with discernment for themselves.

The nature of exercises were discussed, and it was agreed that where students were forced to draw on material not supplied by the courses itself (e.g. from an archive or library) that it was important that the exercises be as generic as possible. This would also allow an element of choice on the part of the student, making the course more particularly interesting to them.

  • A seamless student experience was seen as being essential, masking any transition between technologies or delivery platforms that may actually exist.
  • Editorial control over the content of courses was something that needs to be thought about, both in terms of minor tweaks but also in terms of more substantial periodic updates. The content needs to be maintained – so for example if it draws upon external resources and those change, the content needs to reflect the changes.
  • Courses will need to be clear on their content, and the assumptions being made of the students (both in terms of their technical capabilities and their research skills level.

The costs and time necessary to create technologically advanced online training resources is also very significant (and often underestimated). Specifically it was suggested that certain elements of explanation (especially about performing practical or mechanical tasks within the course) – the kind of instruction that would take very little time in a face-to-face context – could be handled more speedily in a screencasting format than through textual description.

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At our workshop Developing Online Research Training and Course Delivery it was generally agreed that many historians were hesitant to use blogs and wikis although different age groups vary in this.  The age cohort is worth bearing in mind when setting up a course – often a younger age group will be able to cope and understand new technologies better than older groups (although this is not always the case and must be approached cautiously).  Whilst Google has transformed searching on the internet it is a paradigm for online teaching.  People tend to think that they already know how to search when they actually don’t.  Plus library catalogues are beginning to lose functionality to appear more available to the ‘Google-generation’. 

The issue of ‘googleification’ in library catalogues has been discussed somewhat in-house.  Established librarians and historians don’t generally like it (that at least seems to be the consensus).  I find myself in agreement here.  The loss of functionality seems to be a backward step especially if it is just to pander to those who want something familiar and are unwilling to learn.  That said, there is a fine line here between unwillingness to learn and the necessity to learn.  I recall a discussion held in another workshop that I attended at the IHR recently on digital editing projects.  It is very easy for those of us who work in the realm of e-learning and digitalisation to just assume that everyone knows what we are talking about.  We sometimes forget that we only learnt these things because it was part of our job to do so.  It took time.  The question, then, is how do we create training resources that students can understand and relate to whilst at the same time feed into that process some of the more complex digital knowledge that they may one day require?  No easy task!

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At our workshop held in June on Developing Online Research Training and Course Delivery the issue of user support and the role of the tutor came up as a complex problem for the online environment.  Here is a summary of what was said on the subject:

It is important always to place any individual resource or part of a training course into the overall intellectual/educational/historical context of the theme or subject – in other words so that whilst the student is dealing with a detailed aspect of the course, they are aware of the wider significance of that aspect.  A substantial support effort will be required for any online course, tutor-led or otherwise. The support would not simply be to provide technical assistance to students having difficulty accessing the material, but would need to be offering help with the content.

But how do we provide user support?  It is not enough to provide forums as students need synchronous/asynchronous help.  Although ‘chat’ can be one way to deal with this problem it requires someone to have the chat regularly checked and not all people know how to use chat effectively. 

There is also a related problem here in the role of the tutor.  How do you avoid the problem of the tutor being viewed as having all the answers (i.e. students go to the tutor for answers rather than work it out amongst themselves)?  This is a difficult problem which is obviously not restricted to online teaching, but nonetheless presents particular problems for this format.  A tutor needs to find the right balance between having an overbearing effect on a class and avoiding the trap of neglecting the class.  Clear rules of engagement therefore need to be set out.

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