Work Smart, Not Hard

I am SO BAD at this. It sounds fantastic, and when I start a new project I think to myself, “Yes! This time I’ll do it right!”…and it never happens. I am definitely not alone in my disorganization – there’s a reason that one of the stereotypical images of an academic workspace is a cluttered desk filled with books – but it doesn’t have to be that way. And, honestly, it shouldn’t be that way. It causes me so much stress and additional work that is completely unnecessary. Going back over a project because you realized you’ve missed something crucial, or because the way you’ve laid it out makes no sense is absolutely soul-destroying. Especially when you’ve been working on that project for 3 years already…

I’m spending this week (and probably the next 2-3 weeks) working on a database that is the basis of my dissertation. I made this database just over 3 years ago – it was the very first relational database I’d ever made, and dear LORD does it show. It has gaps, some of the fields don’t make any sense, there are other fields that I didn’t put in that I really should have done…it’s a bit of a mess, if I’m entirely honest. I’m a little ashamed that it’s taken me 3 years to realize it! I’m also ashamed to say that I didn’t need to spend as much time creating it in the beginning, as much of the data in it duplicates information found in the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative. Instead of tracking down and entering all of this information manually, I could have just used CDLI…

However, there is a silver lining! Not only does the fact that I’ve been working on this for 3 years mean that I have a much, much better understanding of what I need the database to do, but CDLI was recently made available for download, meaning that I can take all of this amazing data and use it in my own database! This would be kind of weird if all I was doing was duplicating what CDLI has done (why do that when I can just use the CDLI website?) , but I’m actually taking the information found in CDLI and integrating it with information from other sources – mainly findspot and excavation information! Unfortunately, because I worked hard and not smart when I made my own database, it’s proving more difficult than it should be to combine the two datasets. On the plus side, I’m learning all kinds of tips and tricks for formatting data in my efforts to get some kind of consistency across the data.

One of the things that was really hammered home to me by data management experts when I started this project is to try and make your data as easily shareable and integratabtle as you possibly can. Use existing data standards and metadata common to other projects where possible. This prevents the creation of 80 databases that carry essentially the same information, but cannot be combined because the field names are slightly different, or because you have one field to record an object’s dimensions while a colleague uses three. Using existing data, where applicable, is also an excellent practice (and as you’ve read, one that I completely bypassed). For example, all of the objects in the CDLI database have a unique number, known as a ‘P number’, that allows them to be identified. While I had good intentions and always meant to use the CDLI P numbers, I never did. Which is very unfortunate, because they would’ve been an ideal means by which to integrate the two datasets. I’m pleased to report that I’ve found a (relatively) painless way to do this without the P numbers, but it would’ve been so much easier had I just followed my intentions to begin with.

Of course, now I have the entirety of CDLI at my disposal, I have far more objects than I did to begin with. My original database only included objects published in certain volumes of a particular translation series – the Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia. As CDLI is much more up-to-date, it includes many objects and inscriptions not published in that series, including some that just aren’t published. I have one hell of a job ahead of me to track down inscription and findspot information for all of those objects…but, luckily, because I’m actually using the CDLI this time, at least some of the groundwork has been laid for me!

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