From Serial Sources to Modeled Data
Changing Perspectives on Eighteenth-Century Court Records from French Pondicherry
This article focuses on the issue of data modeling from a historian's point of view and analyzes the development of a relational data base for court records from 18th-century French Pondicherry. On the basis of a detailed description of this case study, it makes a case for the potential of applying digital methods in history beyond the actual analysis of data. First, a pragmatic approach is applied, tracing the modeling of data in three steps: Deriving a conceptual data model from the sources, transferring it into a structure for the database, and importing automatically extracted data into the database. These steps are examined as a process of successively »atomizing« rather unwieldy information from historical sources into entities with attributes and relationships between one another. Here, I point out specific challenges and difficulties of digitally assessing historical sources. Secondly, the article takes a self-reflexive stance by examining the application of digital methods in historical research as an encounter of different ways of handling information. It contends that actively adapting the material to computational demands necessarily entails thinking in terms of abstract patterns as opposed to focusing on individual cases. This tension brings about an awareness of one's own premises and methodological contingencies. In doing so, I argue, the application of digital methods itself can already be enriching for the research process.