Why RDM is important to me

As I wrote in my previous blog entry I still conduct historical research in my spare time and I have spent the last few days in Whitehaven in Cumbria filming a small segment for next year’s series of Coast on the BBC.

Now I have got that vanity exercise out of the way, I can say why good RDM was important for this filming…! I completed my PhD back in 2008 and although my book only came out earlier this year, most of the research for it was undertaken during my post-graduate days. As a result, when Coast came calling I needed to find information, some of which I hadn’t looked at for over four years. In my previous post I stated that I had started to create an Access database of the letters I photographed in the National Archives. This has proved invaluable over the last week. Without it, I would have had to trawl through 100s (if not 1000s) of images; with it, I could do a keyword search and find the results I was after. In addition, the fact that I ordered my files by the catalogue system in the National Archives made finding the individual photos much easier.

What this exercise brought home to me is that good research data management is essential, not only whilst working on the most recent or current project, but also if the data (or sources or documents) are needed in the future. Thankfully, I had created the very basic (and admittedly incomplete) database.

It also raised another issue for me. Having to go back through my own data made me aware of just how much data I had collected that I didn’t really need to (but don’t tell my supervisor!!). With the increase in digital technology it is now so easy to collect much more data than will ever be needed for projects or even have time to go through. I am sure that I haven’t looked at some of the images  since I photographed them over five years ago! Research data management must begin before data collection starts. From my point of view, I allowed technology to overtake good research skills. Back when I completed my BA and MA I used to go into the archives with pencil and paper and come out with reams of notes and the odd photocopy. However many notes I took, they were all relevant to my research projects. During my PhD I came out with GBs of images, some of which had no relevance to my research project and some only of limited relevance.

I would photograph a complete letter book or ship’s log and tell myself I would go through it when I got home and draw out all that was relevant. In reality, my next research trip or research trawl would come along before I had completed the previous one and although I am sitting on a goldmine of data if I ever have the chance to fully go through them, I still don’t know if I’ve missed evidence that would have supported (or indeed contradicted) my thesis and book argument.

Does this make me a bad researcher? Of course I don’t think so – no one can ever look at all the evidence(!!), but I did get overtaken by events and overly excited by the possibilities of “new” technologies and at times allowed myself to forget basic research techniques. It is essential that research data management really does look at the whole research life-cycle and not only once data collection has started – it could be too late by then!

Posted under Research, Training

This post was written by Gareth Cole on June 21, 2012

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