Some Thoughts on Research

As some readers of this blog may know, I am an active (well, semi-active!) historian as well as working on the Open Exeter Project. A rather shameless plug, but if you happen to be interested in the Royal Navy or military logistics my book on the subject was published earlier this year…!! More seriously, it does mean that I may have a different perspective on the research data management issues that researchers face as I am also facing the same issues. 

Last Thursday I had a day off from the day job and decided to spend it at The National Archives at Kew. Users of Kew are fortunate in that they allow you to take digital images of the vast majority of their archives. Increasingly other record offices also allow photos to be taken (although some do not). This means that many humanities researchers are now faced with data management (or research management) issues that they haven’t previously dealt with. One of the major ones is storage and management of thousands of photos of letters, documents, images etc.

In my own work I have a folder called “PRO photos” (The National Archives was known as The Public Record Office when I started my research). This folder is 4.56GB in size and consists of 8302 files in 1404 folders (according to the folder properties). I also have seperate folders for other record offices. Thus, my folder for the Staffordshire Record Office and William Salt Library (in Stafford) is 3.29GB, and has 834 files in 115 folders. In addition, the folder I created from Thursday’s work consists of 454 files in 8 folders (and is 1.8GB in size). Once I have tidied this folder up, the contents will be added to the “PRO photos folder”. I could go on…

How I organise, store and analyse these images has a massive impact on my research.

  • Organisation: Put simply, I organise my files in the same manner that they are organised in the archive where I took the photos. Thus, for The National Archives I have a folder called ADM (Admiralty papers) and within that I have sub-folders, i.e. ADM 1, ADM 2 etc., and within those I have more folders i.e. ADM 1 393, ADM 1 4014 etc. Within each of these I put individual letters (which may take a few images) into their own folder. I do the same for WO (War office), SUPP (Ministry of Supply) etc. Other humanities researchers we have spoken to during the course of the Open Exeter project organise their files in a similar way.
  • Storage: All my files are primarily stored on my personal laptop. I also have copies on DVD and my work PC (so hopefully I shouldn’t lose all these copies in one event…). I have also started using cloud storage. However, this has raised another issue. I am registered with Micrsoft Skydrive and have the 25GB free space. However, getting the files onto this so that they can be read on my iPad and personal PC is proving problematic.  I loaded my Stafford files onto Skydrive (on my personal laptop) on Wednesday and, even though I haven’t had it on continuously since then, over half the files still need to synch. We have spoken to other researchers who don’t use cloud storage for this very reason.
  • Analysis: This initially proved problematic. I completed my MA in the analogue age i.e. I took notes using pencil and paper and the odd photocopy (my two box files of notes are also sat at home).  My photography only started with my PhD. During my PhD I started to create an Access database so I could easily discover what was in each letter. This database was searchable and each table consisted of four basic columns: PRO reference number; Date; From whom; and about (this being a brief sentence and keywords on what each letter contained). Many other researchers use spreadsheets in a similar way. Although not an Exeter researcher, see this blog post of Dr Kevin Linch at Leeds for a similar system.

I have only given a very brief summary here but it has been interesting uncovering as part of the Open Exeter project that many researchers use similar ways to organise their research data totally independently of each other. This of course has implications for future training sessions and materials. We can use examples from peers to demonstrate how research material can be organised to aid the research process.

Of course, other subjects have far larger files and differing file types which cause their own issues. However, we can still take the principle of using peer examples to show best practice. This should aid engagement and help to make training sessions feel relevant to the participants.

Posted under Research, Training

This post was written by Gareth Cole on April 27, 2012

Comments are closed.

More Blog Post