Data Doesn’t Speak for Itself

Databases exist everywhere. In libraries, museums, businesses, government, our own personal records. The advent of the internet did not bring about their mass existence, but digitization brought them closer to the fingertips of the general (and sometimes random) user. Databases are the foundation of good non-fiction. If you want to tell a true story you base it on facts, which are collected by you from a database.You cull the databases to extract the work you had in mind. Of course, there are countless fragments of databases, countless databases in entirety you may ignore for your project, too. They may pertain to the same subject but don’t add to your narrative, or they don’t shape it the way you want. This is the manipulation of data. No matter how you access it, physically in a dusty basement or digitally across the internet, the result is the same. Databases do not stand as storytellers on their own – they require us to decide what within tells the story.

The difference is that with digital databases, the story may or may not be tidied up for  you. Digital databases can span multiple types of records – documents, photographs, audio and video recordings, models, all which have been collected and cataloged by someone with the interest.Not all digital databases are all-inclusive. Sometimes the data is raw. Sometimes it isn’t, and you find yourself exploring an “interactive” narrative. The user must navigate the collection on their own, build their own story line piece by piece. Manovich argues that interacting with data in such a way does not craft a true narrative – with which I agree, it is not a narrative by definition during the act of manipulating the database. You don’t often navigate through a linear story. Your trail may wander, backtrack, split multiple times or completely divert. However, in the end, one comes away with a collection of facts that can be compiled and organized. And, if we are working with the subject of history, I think it is natural for our brains to often arrange the facts in a linear progression. The end result, though personally crafted, is still a narrative.

It has become museum cannon that there is no “right way” to experience collections. That freedom of choice is imperative to learning. Even when a database has been brought to order under a digital curator who has picked and chosen for the user what they may click through, the bounded options still often allow freedom of movement within the interface. Two different visitors will not click through the same way. Simon argues that museums have a great deal to learn from the Web 2.0 model that allows open, two-way conversation across the internet. This dialogue removes the authority of the museum and acknowledges the contributions of the visitors. In many ways, digital collections can mirror their older sibling’s change of heart about how audiences can best experience and interact with their collections. Museums are making the shift of placing the power of knowing in the visitor’s hands. Rigid instruction is out. Linear navigation of the collections is not as popular. To present your digital collection in such a way that assumes users know what they are looking at without any sort of guidance, or as such that isolates users who are not professional researchers does your collection a disservice. Kirchenbaum expresses the sentiment that the Blake Archive was always meant to be for the serious researcher. But with a little more effort put into the interface and design, could it not be for both? The database is already there, online, waiting for the PhD student to query it. Make an interactive collection for the layman to click around in, too.


Pam Enlow


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