[ on digital matters and a dissertation ]

One small step in technology; one giant step in historical analysis

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The syllabus for Fred Gibbs’s graduate course,  Programming for Historians, is ambitious.

Even for this class lurker, shadow-in-the-corner, and tech-stalker, the thought of working through the modules and the extensive list of the skills to explore (with practicum)–HTML5, CSS3, databases in theory and practice, mySQL, PHP, mark-up languages and more–is grist for intimidation or perhaps evocative of a giant time suck.

But the syllabus is at least as compelling as it is daunting. Why? Partly because requirements include “Must be able to have fun and learn while accomplishing nothing.”

It’s also the emphasis on digital tools to refocus the way we look at historical resources and how we think about them and use them. As analytical tools, these technologies promote creative thinking, but they’re also eminently practical for organizing research and resources en route to the dissertation and building foundations for complex projects.

The extensive records of the Tredegar Corporation in the nineteenth century comprise a core resource for my dissertation. They are not atypical of a mid-sized, family-owned corporation whose external accountability was limited in contrast to today’s regulatory standards and for whom the rational factory was a futuristic system. They wouldn’t pass muster today, and in fact, didn’t in 1913 when the Underwood Tariff Act called for a retrospective examination of Tredegar’s account books and depreciation records.


This week’s work with MAMP, mySQL, phpMyAdmin, and databases has started small. Very small.

  • Install and configure MAMP
  • Create databases and relational tables using phpMyAdmin
  • Normalize tables in phpMyAdmin
  • Create database and table using mySQL commands in Terminal
mySQL on Terminal


I extrapolated samples of employee payroll records from Tredegar for a two-year period, 1882 and 1883, simply drawing about ten records to determine informational relationships that would enable conclusions about variations and fluctuations in numbers of employees and payroll expenditures over time. I was also looking for an organizational structure that would permit augmenting fields and joining additional tables as research progresses.

I learned that designing a database with relational tables challenges initial assumptions about what questions are most helpful to ask of the data. I had assumed that identifying the employees was the critical first task. Employee identity turned out to be the least useful kind of information and a category unlikely to enable database expansion or increased queries.

Next Tasks

  • Populate databases
  • Import databases/upload .csv files
  • Query databases
  • PHP


  • Definitions of data types is still unclear. I need to be able to table currency. I used VARCHAR, but am not sure that’s the best data type.
  • I need to compare months and years. The role of relational tables for that query and database creation is still foggy. What is the purpose of date and year within in data types?

Note: I’m Storifying HIST698. Storify gives quick fix, instant visibility to resources I anticipate visiting and revisiting and charts a pedagogical narrative with linearity not circumscribed by chronology.