How I work with my material- Access

Big disclaimer upfront: my knowledge of Access is minuscule.  I bumble around and am fully aware that there are probably a million things that I could do with it, but can’t be bothered learning.   They speak of “just-in-time” learning- well, as far as Access is concerned, I have “just enough” knowledge for it to do what I need.

The British Empire, bless its cotton socks, was very good at one thing (at least) and that is information control.  Let’s imagine a letter written in Port Phillip about some little brouhaha that Willis might be involved in.  It would  go to Superintendant La Trobe as inward correspondence; he would make some comments on it in a covering letter and send it to Gipps in Sydney as outward correspondence; it would arrive there as Gipps’ inward correspondence and then he would make further comments in another covering letter and send it all to the Colonial Office as a Governor’s outward despatch.  It would arrive in London some 5-8 months later, be minuted by various public servants as it moved from desk to desk in the Colonial Office, making its way to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, then the reply would move back in the following direction.  All of this would be numbered, and entered in inward- and outward- correspondence letter books.

Beautiful though this system might be, it does mean that a single letter might appear multiple times in LaTrobe’s, Gipps’ or the Secretary of State’s archives, and may appear yet again in collections of correspondence bundled up for a special report.  Likewise for my Canadian material,  I’m working from a single archive divided up into separate files in my computer, and thus of no use to anyone else but me in finding where it is in my own records.  But each document also has its own numbering used in other archives and microfilms- and this is the information that is important for footnotes.  What I needed was a way of identifying an item and noting all the different numberings it might have in the major archives that I am working in.

So I have developed a very basic database that shows the date of the correspondence, the names of sender and recipients, enough identifying information for me to know what it’s about, where it is in my own computer files and then the number it has in the major collections used by researchers generally that I would record in a footnote.

I stop at three locations- there are no doubt more, but this is probably enough.  The majority of entries relate to correspondence, but I also put newspaper articles in as well.   When I view it as a table, it runs chronologically.

I feel a little sheepish admitting to such a paltry database.  It is an idiosyncratic little thing, of minimal use to anyone else, but invaluable for me- and that’s probably the most important thing. No doubt others would say “But why don’t you use ——- instead?” and they’d probably be right.  I think, though, at some stage you need to stop shopping around for the perfect program, and just sit down and start putting some data into it and using the damned thing.  When I reach its limitations and become frustrated, then I’ll either learn the extra functions I need within the program, or  look for something else.  In the meantime, this works okay for me and I’m just getting on with it.

3 responses to “How I work with my material- Access

  1. You have a simple system and it works for you. How good is that.

  2. I am enjoying reading about the nuts and bolts of your research process, and how frank you are about it all. Databases is one area where I also feel quite inadequate. I have learned about them in various courses but it doesn’t seem to come to me naturally. This is one area that is on my ‘to do list’ to learn.

    But at least you have a database. I have come across many cases where people try to do all this on a Word document which I then have to transfer to an Excel spreadsheet. Excel is better, Access is even more better (sorry for the clumsy phrase), and I agree with you that there are probably super dooper database systems out there that are light years ahead of these methods.

    The important thing is that you have a system where you can find what you need to find when you need to find it with the potential to do more analysis if you want. I think it sounds a logical system which is my criteria for a satisfactory cataloguing system.

    It would be great to read comments from others about how they are handling this.

  3. We’ll make a librarian of you yet RJ. I love your sharing this with us … As long as it does what you want, I see no reason to be embarrassed about it. The main challenge with setting up a database is then keeping it up to date!

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