It has been a while since my last post here. Since then I have been working both on the catalog system and on collecting and checking data. Last week I have decided to make the website publicly available, and so far reception has been great (in Portuguese only, though). My main concern was the server stability, but so far so good – if the initial traffic did not crash the server, I think it is fair to say it should survive regular use.
There is still much work to be done regarding checking the dissertations metadata, but for now I will have to wait and stick to programming tasks. I have found Django to be an excellent tool for what I needed, especially concerning its in-built security features. I will soon make the GitHub repository publicly available too, so all the code should be free to critique and reuse.
Last year and the year before I studied some translation theory and decided it was time for me to practice a new skill. In this post I would like to share some of the wonderful texts I received authorization to translate. Conscious of my own limitations, I am always open to criticism, observations, and other tips on translation theory and practice.
My current postdoc position does not have teaching duties. Nevertheless, I have talked to my supervisor and we decided it would be nice for me to offer an elective for undergrads this semester. So I drafted a syllabus and started working on a course that I think I would have liked to have during my time as an undergrad. You can check the final syllabus by clicking here (in Portuguese only, though). 44 students have enrolled in my course.
Sure, understanding most of the “contemporary issues” in historical theory/philosophy of history requires some background knowledge on “perennial issues” that most certainly these students have never read about. But I believe I have structured the course so that I can address these during the lectures. As an introductory course, I do not expect any groundbreaking insight to emerge from it; the goal is to give students a glimpse into some of the questions philosophers of history have been thinking about more recently. “A glimpse” and “some” because there is a limit to what you can teach in a single semester (which, by the way, is actually a quadrimester, but let us leave administrative naming problems aside). There are many issues I would like to have included, such as gender and racial bias in the disciplinary field, or the geopolitics of knowledge production. I hope I can work with these issues in the future.
Another important aspect is that many “theory courses”, which are mandatory in most History undergrad programs I know, are not taught by researches who specialize in theory. Thankfully this seems to be changing, but it sure was true when I was an undergrad myself, not so long ago. What this means is that many theory courses privilege questions that I consider to be better classified under the label of “methodology”, or “theory-methodology” – questions and concepts which are instrumental for historical research. Think of concepts such as “social representation”, in Roger Chartier, or “class experience”, in E. P. Thompson. As a consequence, abstract questions on how historical texts work, how can they convey knowledge, and how can we know anything about the past at all go all under the rug. Those are supposed to be either well-solved, already-dealt-with presuppositions in the history workshop, or questions that only philosophers and literary theorists who know nothing about “actual history” could ask. Again, this scenario does seem to be changing in the last few years. But in the end, not all students have the privilege of being in a department that takes theory seriously, like the Federal University of Ouro Preto (UFOP), or the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio).
Finally, I have structured the course in a way that I can also study more about those issues with my students. Not only because I am writing a paper on the history of historical theory in History departments in Brazil, but also because there is always something new to be learned even from texts you have already read.
Data on history dissertations from the old days is tricky to deal with. The existing analog catalogs are not always complete and often contain incorrect information. And while university libraries have incorporated these dissertations to their online catalogs, each library has done so with varying degrees of precision, depending on many variables. After considering some alternatives, I have decided to manually check for names and titles when possible (I will write about this in a later post). So then we come to the problem of how to store and make available all the data.
My first option was to use some existing software for digital cataloging or content management. After browsing around, I have found some applications that could do the job reasonably well, even if some customizing was always necessary. I thought Omekawas a bit of an overkill, since I was not planning on digitizing all the content of the dissertations – and even if I was, I would then have to deal with copyright issues (as far as I know, Brazil has no “fair use” doctrine, and even if it had, I don’t believe it would apply to my database). Other library catalog and institutional repository applications, such as D-Space and others, would be cumbersome to customize for some extra information I would like to have included in the database.
Then I considered building a system myself, containing just what I needed for the project and no extra bells and whistles. As I had some knowledge of Python, I followed the suggestion of a friend and started learning Django. Django is a robust web framework that enables quick and relatively easy development and deployment for web applications. The basics were pretty straightforward. The learning curve is smooth and the community is very responsive, so most doubts can be solved with a quick Google/Stack Overflow search. For the database itself, I went with MySQL, which integrates well with Django. PostgreSQL remains an option for deployment, as there are some extra functionalities which might be useful in the future.
All in all, programming is definitely not the hardest part of the project. That might be so because I am a historian who had some programming experience in his teens. Nevertheless, decisions over what metadata to include, how to normalize names and titles, or how to structure the tagging system, all of these are questions with far greater weight on the probability of success of the catalog.
My current postdoc project consists in building a large database with (meta)data for all History PhD and MA dissertations defended in Brazil from 1942 to 2000. It has been a while since the last one was published, and the data from the Ministry of Education are inconsistent (to say the least) for entries older than the 2000’s. As a historian of historiography, this inconsistency has made me waste much time trying to cross-check information about specific dissertations – and I know many colleagues who had to do all the same things for their own works. So I decided to bring everything together and build this tool. It should gather important library metadata for all items (following Dublin Core specifications, except for the abstract, for reasons of time and budget constraints) but also implement some features specific for the target-audience – other historians of historiography.
There are two country-wide catalogs in print. One was published in 1985 and spans from 1973 to 1984; the other was published in 1995 and spans from 1984 to 1994. The information they collected is inconsistent, though, and many entries are missing. Many Graduate Programs have published their own catalogs too, some in print, some on their websites. But as those are filled by different people, and people have this thing of (1) not following input standards and (2) not caring for incomplete data, I noticed these catalogs vary greatly in terms of quality. I have managed to acquire most of the print stuff and saved locally all the online ones.
After getting all the available catalogs, I started inputting the information to a Excel spreadsheet, just to check for inconsistencies (different spellings, dates, etc.) and missing data. Right now I have over 3000 entries. Since then I have tried to normalize the names of individuals by developing an authority control (some of the individuals are harder to find than others), and now I am in the process of visiting the university libraries that host the texts and checking all the information with the works themselves. However, a major difficulty is that recording the thesis committee and the defense date was not mandatory until recently. So I have some detective work going forward for the older works.
My next post will be about the technological aspect of the project: the website, the database, and the analytics.
I have just reset and restarted the website so I could post about my project updates. For the time being I’ll start sharing some details on the database I’m currently working on, as well as some other parallel works. My goal is to reach colleagues which would not be able to follow this content if it was in Portuguese – and maybe even learn how to write better in the process.