Information Management Part II: The Database

Though I’ve been looking at the story of my great uncle Jack and the crew of B for Baker since about 1996, my work has really become serious over the last five or so years. In that time I’ve amassed and created a great deal of information: facts, documents, books, photographs, sound recordings, emails, letters and yes, even blog posts. Keeping track of all of that data is a significant task. In my last post I explained how I catalogue my sources. How to easily access the information contained within those sources forms the second part of my information management system.

The files from the first research I completed on my great uncle, which was for a competition called the National History Challenge when I was still in primary school, all fitted into a single A4 display folder. The second phase of work I did, in the year I took off between high school and university, filled a small portable filing box. I graduated to a two-drawer filing cabinet for paper notes and documents when I decided to start my current (and somewhat obsessive) work about five years ago, but by then digital storage was becoming predominant. While it’s still important to have access to the paper files in that cabinet (and I’ve filled another box with them too), most of my work (including this blog post as I write it) is now saved onto a portable hard drive on my computer and catalogued as I explained in my last post. And having stored and catalogued all of this information, the next step is the ability to easily search the whole lot to find the parts I’m looking for at any particular time. That is where a solid digital database comes in handy.

The one I eventually settled on is a self-contained piece of software called Personal Knowbase. It’s a simple, easy-to-use program that allows me to save my information in text-based articles and attach any number of relevant keywords to each article. Each article has a date stamp which can be set to any date – like the date of the letter or document under study, for example. I can then easily pull up any articles tagged with a particular keyword, or combination of keywords. Some examples of tags I’ve used might be general themes (‘training’, ‘flying’, ‘operations’, ‘England’ etc), individuals’ names, book titles, aircraft types, targets, airfields and so on and so on. I’ve also used my catalogue numbers as keywords which makes it easy to locate the source of any specific quote. I can easily run a more customised search using a combination of keywords, basic text searches and date ranges, across the entire database or a selected subset of it. Searches can then be exported in various formats for printing or review.

The point is it is very easy to access information when it is needed, and to be able to tell where that particular piece of information came from. And if I’ve used my keywords effectively, I can also pull up related articles – very helpful when looking for everything I have on a particular raid that happened on 10 May 1944, for example…

It’s not a perfect system. Simple things like typographical errors can make word searches difficult, and care needs to be taken to use appropriate keywords to avoid burying an important fact under a pile of other stuff. And like anything computer-related, the file is susceptible to a hardware failure or a file corruption, for example – the latter of which happened to me late last year. Happily, a solid backup regime provides a certain degree of redundancy and I was able to recover my file without losing too much work (the cause was eventually traced to a dodgy portable hard drive). My database is now automatically backed up in two separate locations, one of which is ‘off-site’, and I make an occasional manual copy too ‘just in case’.

Overall, it’s a useful bit of gear. I have the database window open on one side of my screen whenever I’m working on my research. Together with the catalogue spreadsheet, the database makes it easy to store, search and find virtually anything in my collection of sources.

© 2013 Adam Purcell