Monday, 3 May 2010

Getting to grips with the DNB project: 1

In my first post about this on 20 April I described how one of the three options in undertaking this piece of coursework, worth 10 units, is to do a biographical essay styled and modelled on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography template. This is straightforward for most of my fellow students, who have embarked on the course with a clear idea about whom they wish to write, but it is not so for me.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. The one I favour is an essay based upon a group sharing common characteristics, using the ODNB search facility to highlight which of that group have been written about in it. To do this however is by no means as straightforward as at first sight it might appear. I am therefore going to describe the steps I took when I embarked upon researching an essay I entitled Pre- and Post-Conquest Benedictine Monks, which would seek to address the question "How rapidly and completely did Normans replace English in the senior ranks of the Benedictine order?"

On the ODNB home page I clicked the Search tab and on the ensuing Search page I clicked People search. On the ensuing page I made the following choices:
Fields of interest (from drop-down menu): Religion and belief
Life dates: 1000 to 1200, with Active not Alive selected
Text search: Benedictine abbot
Exact selected: 1 life
All words selected: 75 lives
Any words selected: 258 lives

Clearly, All words indicated the most promising approach. At this point I looked at a handful of the names listed and it was immediately clear that there was sadly little that was certain about the ethnicity of the majority of them, so I felt that it would be wise to change the Text search from Benedictine abbot to Benedictine. This yielded 98 lives.

Equally clearly, handling all this material would require something better that a wordprocessed file. I could have used a spreadsheet, but this would have made data entry slower. In the olden days people would have used index cards, so it was natural that I chose to use a database, MS Access, which is in essence a drawerful of electronic index cards. I chose to give these index cards (in techspeak, records) these partitions (in techspeak, fields):

  1. ID: index autonumber
  2. ODB ref: how indexed
  3. Ethnicity: E [English=Anglo-Saxon], A/N (Anglo/Norman), N [Norman], E/N [Efather, N mother], N/E [N father, E mother], F (French), O [Other, with origin in brackets], ? [unknown]
  4. Birth date, followed by, if necessary: ? (unknown), c (circa=about), fl (floruit=flourished: this usage in the ODNB is obscure), < (before), > (after)
  5. Death date
  6. Reject why: a=Benedictine monk who worked mainly abroad, b=bishop/archbishop, not having been Benedictine monk, e=other ecclesiastic, h=hermit, n=nobleman, x=lived too little in period
  7. DNB essence: as contained in opening sentence, less Benedictine or monk
  8. Final position
  9. Monastery: principal, if more than one
  10. Prior: date of becoming
  11. Abbot: date of becoming
  12. Quotes: copied and pasted from entry, giving one or more key points
  13. Notes: made by me

Fields 2-11 are all Text fields, with a default size of 50 characters and maximum of 255.
Fields 12 & 13 are Memo fields, with practically unlimited size.

It must be emphasised that this format was not formed like this at the outset, but because one of the strengths of Access is its flexibility I was able to add fields as it became clear that this was necessary when reading online the Dictionary entries.

On completing this exercise, about a third of the list needed to be rejected, so I made a copy of the original table (techspeak for the drawer which holds the index cards) and deleted 35, leaving 63. By using the Access Sort feature on the Reject by field, this was done in 10 seconds.

I now sorted on the Ethnicity field, to find that my initial suspicion was confirmed: only 20 of my surviving 63 could be clearly identified as either English or Norman, or a cross of the two. This made my original question incapable of being satisfactorily answered from the data.

At this moment I felt a faint sense of panic: all this work, to no avail! I considered abandoning the database and doing a piece on Robert of Shrewsbury, the prior of the abbey in that town that instigated the transfer thither of the relics of the saint on whom I am writing my term paper. However, the existing entry on him was only 297 words and there is no way that I can sensibly pad this out to the minimum 1,000 words required.

Then it struck me that much of what appears in these entries comes from contemporary works, much written by Benedictines, and all cited in the Sources part of the entry. Therefore I rewrote my question as "How if at all did the subject matter of Benedictine biographies change after the Conquest?", my initial guess being that there would be a swing away from vitae on Anglo-Saxon saints towards more universal ones.

Therefore I will add a new field to my latest table, Sources, into which I am going to copy the entire contents of that part of each entry and to change the Notes field to just the titles of anything biographical written by the subject. I will then look at all this, having sorted the table on the Birth date field, and reconsider the question.

I trust that I will be able to reveal what I find in a sequel to this post later in the week.


Incidentally, if any of you would like to see what I have done, I would be happy to send you the tables, either for Access 2007 or Access 2002-2003. If you'd like this, just put your name and e-mail address in a comment on this post.


I notice that I have just written 1,000 words: what a pity I can't submit this piece as my assignment!

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