Client name . Bodleian Libraries
Sector . Education and knowledge
Summary comment . Dr Robert V. McNamee, DPhil Oxon, Director,
Electronic Enlightenment Project
"I'm telling the truth when I say that the Electronic Enlightenment Project probably couldn't exist without FileMaker. We've built the project from the ground up, and FileMaker has been an absolutely integral part of that journey. I think that some people wouldn't naturally think of something like FileMaker to build such an incredibly complex network, but it is absolutely key to what we are doing here. We are so, so impressed with it."
FileMaker brings the Past to Life with Bodleian Libraries
The Electronic Enlightenment Project (EE) at the University of Oxford's Bodleian Libraries carries a lofty and noble goal. Using a combination of sophisticated technology, Dr. Robert V. McNamee and his team bring more than 58,000 letters and documents from the dawn of the early modern period to life for members of the public, scholars and academics. With over 7,000 historical correspondents included in the Electronic Enlightenment collection, the project boasts the widest ranging collection of publicly available letters from this period, linking correspondents across Europe, the Americas and Asia between the early 17th to mid 19th Centuries.
Dr. McNamee's initial challenge was actually born while working at the Voltaire Foundation, another department at Oxford, which specialises in correspondence between the eponymous French philosopher and his 18th-century contemporaries. Searching for a system that was capable of indexing a large number of documents, Robert was introduced to FileMaker. "The director of the department was a big Apple fan and showed me FileMaker which, back then, was at Version 3.2! We needed something that was capable of handling a really granular bibliographic system, lots of documents in different formats, and FileMaker proved to be perfect for building and testing that."
With time, the Electronic Enlightenment Project came into being. Spreading their net wider than ever before, crossing both centuries, continents and languages with the new project, the scope of the task grew accordingly. "We realised pretty early on that what we were looking at with these documents was basically the early modern equivalent of the internet. You're talking about a huge network of connecting letters, covering innumerable people, places and events. Recreating and rebuilding these conversations was going to be a huge task, and from our previous success with using it, it was clear from day one that FileMaker was the natural foundation for such a massive project."
Having progressed through different versions over the years, the EE team currently relies on FileMaker Pro 11. Now running 26 relational databases, many with well over 300 fields in each table, the project benefits from being able to reference a huge quantity of information via a number of sophisticated links. With the project based around a few foundation databases that cover elements such as authors, locations, dates and events, these main stores are supported by a range of others that provide a vast range of cross-referential information. Five databases, for example, are devoted purely to the subject of “annotation”, containing information on everything from authorial annotation – that made by the original correspondent – through to commentary annotation, which provides insight into why the writer is discussing the theme in question.
“When you’re looking at almost 60,000 letters, you’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of pieces of individual information, all of which link to each other in a huge variety of ways,” says Robert. “The great thing about FileMaker is that it’s smart and robust enough to manage that, but it’s also incredibly user friendly. It blurs the distinction between your basic user and the professional designer, and I mean that in a good way.”
- Relational database capabilities bring hundreds of thousands of records together and allow for deep scrutiny
- Power and design of FileMaker Pro 11 allows for ongoing expansion and development
- Easy integration with other database outputs, enabling near-instant data matching and correlation
- Easy export functions prepare data for public consumption
- Real time building and testing allows for instant verification of data
- User friendly interface allows for all levels of technical ability
Offering its users a "virtual web of communication", from which they are able to map the many diverse connections between authors and recipients, EE creates a fascinating network of connected documents, linking writer to writer and giving readers access to both the minutiae of each document and also its place in the wider picture of one of the most active periods in history.
"FileMaker allows us to do so much with the letters and data we have," continues Robert. "We're always expanding the project, adding between 200-400 letters and 50-100 biographies to it every month. Every time we're able to cross reference new data, the system will throw us some surprises. Just this month, we connected two important historical correspondents in Paris and Venice that no-one had ever realised were linked."
Dr. McNamee also cites the flexibility of the system as a major plus point. "Recently, the team at the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names was kind enough to provide us with their data to help us expand our location based information. That's millions of records across 20 datasets, and we were able to integrate it easily into our system and immediately start it running against our own data." Compatibility with Apple Script has also benefited the team, allowing for inter-application data exchange.
For Robert though, one of the main benefits is the relative complexity and simplicity of the system for individual users with differing technical abilities. "We wanted to open this system up to people of all levels of understanding when it comes to the programming side, and FileMaker lets us do that as well."