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What historians don't know about database design…

Mar 02 2011

I’ve been thinking for a while about the transparency of digital infrastructure, and what historians need to know that currently is only available to the digitally curious. They’re occasionally stirred by a project like ngrams to think about the infrastructure, but when that happens they only see the flaws. But those problems—bad OCR, inconsistent metadata, lack of access to original materials—are present to some degree in all our texts.

One of the most illuminating things I’ve learned in trying to build up a fairly large corpus of texts is how database design constrains the ways historians can use digital sources. This is something I’m pretty sure most historians using jstor or google books haven’t thought about at all. I’ve only thought about it a little bit, and I’m sure I still have major holes in my understanding, but I want to set something down.

Historians tend to think of our online repositories as black boxes that take boolean statements from users, apply it to data, and return results. We ask for all the books about the Soviet Union written before 1917, Google spits it back. That’s what computers aspire to. Historians respond by muttering about how we could have 13,000 misdated books for just that one phrase. The basic state of the discourse in history seems to be stuck there. But those problems are getting fixed, however imperfectly. We should be muttering instead about something else.

Historians who assume computers are boolean machines gloss over an important distinction: there’s not a one-to-one connection between the boolean logic on a processing board and the boolean logic we feed in. There’s a hard drive that has to be physically moved around, there’s a limited amount computing space that has to be carefully managed, and so on. All those sites have to expend incredibly energy structuring the data in a way that lets you return it with any semblance of speed. HathiTrust has a technical but interesting blog about making their massive archive of OCR’ed texts searchable. Open Library has some interesting posts, too. Google is more reticent about their practices, but you can see it in action on their pages. That Google results page for the Soviet Union before 1917 tells me there are

About 13,500 results (0.53 seconds)

for my search. [I wrote that a couple months ago, and now I get 1,000 more books in a tenth of a second less. Progress!] If I try it again, that number goes down to 0.14 seconds or so, because Google now has a cached entry closer to my computer. The key thing to understand is that Google doesn’t actually look through all the text files it has every time I perform a search. Instead, it passes the request around to see if it already has an answer; and if not, it uses an ‘index’ of all the books to find the ones that have the terms. It doesn’t reach the actual files until the very end of the process, when you click on them to read. For the ngrams viewer, for example, the whole thing is driven entirely by the flat files you can download from their site, and by associated indexes in whatever database program they’re using.

The whole business of search relies on creating indexes, caches, and fragments of databases to get the search numbers lower and lower. Working out indexing and storage schemes took up far more energy early in this project than I anticipated, because the speed difference between good indexing and bad indexing is so great that it makes the kind of research that cuts against the indexes very difficult. So what’s an index? It’s like a concordance, basically–it makes it easy to access just what the index-maker designed, but not much else. A concordance to Ovid is great for understanding his work–but it’s considerably less useful if you’re interested in the entire usage of the golden age latin poetry, and even less so if you’re interested in tracing, say, the mentions of some animal from the Antonines to the Hapsburgs. And if you notice, say, that there are a lot more fish in the Tristia than the Ars Amatoria, there’s no way at all to find out what else distinguishes the two books from each other save from reading them through.

A more concrete example: Let’s say I wanted to know how many times the word ‘evolution’ appeared each year from 1830 to 1922. I could have the computer read through each of the books in my catalog and note the years it appears, but that would take quite a while–twenty minutes to an hour, say. It’s much faster for me to keep database tables in MySQL that tell me all the books that have my word; it’s yet faster if I just keep the counts for each word by year in a separate table. So, for different purposes, I store both those things in the database. And to make that run quickly, I have to create separate indexes that let the computer find results quickly. That lets me get a basic wordcounts graph, n-gram style, for any word in well under a second.

But when I want to start finding out about words that happen in the same sentence as evolution, rather than the same book, I have to go back to the flat text files again. This means it’s hard to ask questions like “What are the words that frequently appear in the same sentence as capitalism in 1920?” And it’s even harder to ask questions about those words, like “How can we cluster books that use words related to evolution on the basis of words related to ‘society’ and words related to ‘biology’?” or”What words appear most disproportionately in the same books as business words?” If I free up some hard drive space, I might try to index at the sentence level as well as the book level, so I can ask some of these questions better. But that comes at the cost of increasing slowness–certain sorts of select queries on my database take minutes, even hours, to run.

So what? Am I just complaining about how slow my funny little research project is? Not entirely. In many ways, these problems are generalizable. That is to say: indexing deeply affects the questions we can ask of our digital libraries. The websites for Jstor, ProQuest, and so on force you into a certain syntax. You can find passages articles that use a two word phrase, and you can find that have both of the words, but if you want to find books that have sentences that have both the words, you can’t. (Pro-Quest lets you find “within 3”, presumably because they build that up. But “within 5”, or “on the same page as” would take a whole extra index. That variability is the point–different databases give us different research capabilities.)

Those limitations aren’t just about web design, although that’s part of it–they’re about the databases underlying the website. Even you let me into Jstor headquarters and gave me all the passwords, any queries on their database different from the ones the website allows would take far longer to run. The solution to this would be to build new indexes to help those queries run faster, but that’s a substantial investment. My relatively constrained indexes take over a day of processing to build. If I correctly understood something Erez Lieberman-Aiden said to me the other day, it’s taking the Harvard culturomics team about a month to build indexes for experimental features in ngrams. That’s a substantial investment of computing power, and in any given direction you quickly outstrip the capabilities of the index. Any sufficiently interested user can think of a new task.

As new algorithms and techniques supplement more basic keyword queries, this problem only gets worse. J-Stor has, for instance, implemented a new experimental topic browser using topic modeling. They build up new indexes for it, I’m sure. But either because topic models are more complicated than simple keyword searches or because they haven’t fully tuned the databases its running on, results  take longer than traditional J-Stor results when you rebalance the terms. And this is with the topics they’ve generated and indexed: if you wanted to generate your own, or use some combination of word-weightings you gleaned from elsewhere, you’d be out of luck.

This is important now because we’re in an interesting period of transitioning search. Computers are fast enough now that we can get two things we didn’t have before: keyword search on text archives orders of magnitude larger than we’ve had before without it necessarily being done through Google (Hathi, internet archive book search being the most obvious), and search that isn’t just done by keyword but by more elaborate models that take many more data points. (Topic modeling being the most promising of these.) Ngrams is a fascinating example of a new way of arranging and searching data. And natural-language-processing opens up new horizons as well. There are a few really interesting attempts, like wordseer, to have a fully collaborative attempt to build new search tools more in line with the way that humanists actually work. Historians want larger corpuses of texts more regularly than any other field, I think, so the limitations and possibilities of search will be as important for them as anyone.

Still, all this infrastructural action is mostly behind the scenes for historians. That’s a bad thing. The real scholarly infrastructure is still going up at J-stor and Google books and everywhere else with a primary audience of social scientists, or the book-buying public, or some vaguely defined audience that don’t have the infrastructural needs that historians might. Any small town in the 19th century knew that the most important task they had was to get the railroad tracks running through their town. Historians need to figure out just what they can get out of texts that they aren’t, and how they can ensure the emerging indexes and database infrastructure leads us to where we want to go.

Where do we want to go? That’s the question, and I’ll leave it to later to answer it more. But it’s something that historians, not just digital ones, need to think about more. The historical profession is not, to put it mildly, very good at dealing with collective-action issues like infrastructure-shaping. There’s little reason to think they could ever get the railroad to run through town. It’s possible that I’m simply wrong about this being an issue for historians, and it’s really a question of librarianship. But I’ve read perhaps too much history of the social uses of technology to believe that entirely; the end-users really can shape the way that the technology evolves. But we’ll need to understand it better first, and in doing so understand how it’s a shared challenge.


A man after my own heart.

Anne - Mar 4, 2011

A man after my own heart.

Ben, this is fascinating. I think as posed here it…

Lo Faber - Mar 1, 2011

Ben, this is fascinating. I think as posed here it seems more like an issue of bibliography (as opposed to history) than it ought to, because your examples and scholarly interests center on printed texts (as do the major massive digitization projects up to now). And no question the intellectual-history-as-quantitative-history model that seems implicit in the discussion has tremendous potential (despite perhaps scaring the crap out of an earlier generation of historians). But don’t you think that the future of digitization for historians will also have a lot to do with more social science-ish kinds of archival materials, geared towards answering more demographic, economic, social history kinds questions? Maybe the phrase “Digital Humanities” mean you’re less interested in digitization projects of a more quantitative nature; but those have analogous sorts of database design and querying issues. (No time to discuss in detail right now, but remind me to tell you about my obsession with the incredible New Orleans Notarial Archives.) In any case I couldn’t agree more about the profession and the train tracks. Thanks for getting me thinking about this topic. Sorry to miss your MAW paper as I’m down in New Orleans. I will read it though. Lo

Lo, I actually think digitization of non-quantita…

Ben - Mar 2, 2011


I actually think digitization of non-quantitative archives (full runs of state archives on a scale like the wikileaks cables, random personal papers) could make a huge different if done right–some sort of API that would let one search across lots of different archives to see how something like the Haymarket riots were described would be really interesting.

The census stuff, you’re completely right, should be renewing interest in social history. The problem is that resources like the ICPSR have been putting up all sorts of great data—including all the Fogel stuff from the New Orleans slave market, if I remember right—online, but we’ve done a lousy job assimilating it. The full run of individual census records could be completely stunning, though, if someone besides had it, for all sorts of reasons. But I think that what I want to say is that even _without_ the sort of changes it would take for that kind of work to be accepted, we need to worry about how digitization is stored.

Also, newspapers are interesting as a kind of middle ground, I think, between the books and the archives. For American historians, at least–even the people who don’t care mostly about books from the 19th Century, like me, spend a lot of time digging through local newspapers. And those digitization projects have been piecemeal, and in many ways are less accessible than books or scholarly journals.