Historical Data at the Enslaved Conference
On March 8th and 9th, Michigan State University hosted a conference titled Enslaved: Peoples of the Historic Slave Trade. The conference brought together scholars using databases to research the lives of individuals connected to slavery and the slave trade. The list of presenters can be found here, and videos of the presentations can be found on the Matrix YouTube channel. Most presenters at the conference focused on the lives of enslaved people in the Americas as captured in archival sources. The two dominant geographic areas for this type of research included the United States and Brazil. Other presenters drew from archaeological methods to explore the material pasts of slavery. Oral history and biographies also featured as methodologies used to build databases. Two themes emerged early in the conference and persisted throughout the presentation sessions: First linking different types of data and second developing best practices for data collection and management.
The first theme emerged from the various data types created by scholars. Some of their projects featured dynamic websites connected to databases or content management systems. These projects tended to be organized by individual people, ship voyages, or documents with each organizing unit containing its own URL. See for example Slave Voyages, Legacies of British Slave-ownership, or Freedom on the Move. The challenge for these different data types is finding concrete evidence for links between the people, voyages, and documents stored on the different websites. Another related problem includes building links to new databases that have not been incorporated into a website. A significant number of presenters, especially the historians, built databases of enslaved persons using Excel or Google Sheets. Ideally, the entries in these databases could be matched to information already available online. The Enslaved Hub currently being developed by Matrix seeks to do just this.
The second theme of best practices relates to the first. Theoretically, the development of best practices would facilitate linking the databases created by different scholars. The best practices would guide researchers through the process of creating a database and making its information available to the Enslaved Hub. One of the key components includes organizing the database from its inception to include clearly defined fields with one type of value per field. This may include discrete numbers, controlled vocabularies, or text fields. Another component entails managing the data throughout the course of the project so new entries can be added and new fields, if necessary, can be created in a logical manner. Lastly, each database should include metadata that describes the project, the data collection practices, and the fields and values in the database. Few of the presenters discussed the importance of metadata or the decisions made during the data collection process.