Friday, January 21, 2005

Ed-Tech Toolbox Essential:
Database Solutions with FileMaker Pro 7

A recurring theme in my support of Humanities faculty over more than a decade is that few have a workable definition of what a database is. A database is something that one accesses in the library perhaps, but it certainly isn't something that you make. (This probably also stems from the fact that unlike most other disciplines, Humanists do not often perceive of the fruits of their research as data.) As a result, I've seen a number of cases over the years where somebody has spent countless hours generating reams of notes or drawers of slides before they ever realize that they have barely-usable pile of "stuff."

On the one hand, it's a little bit worrisome that there are generations of scholars floating around who continue to be trained, from what I can tell, to approach their research with rather medieval methods for information storage, processing, and retrieval. On the other hand, it makes my job both fun and rewarding.

This week I had a professor land at my door with a problem. She's doing close analysis of patterns of language in a classic work of literature. (Trust me, you've heard of it.) She'd gone through this tome and literally pulled out every instance of a particular part of speech. She then dutifully (and handsomely, I might add) recorded more than a dozen descriptive data elements about each instance on papers in a manila folder.

Alas, to search and sort? She'd figured that she'd try entering it all into Excel. It's good that she realized that she had structured information that belonged in tables, but thank goodness she found her way to me before she started entering her multi-lingual data into a giant spreadsheet.

The best part of my job is that in order for me to help instructors, they have to give me a crash course on their research. Our faculty are world-class scholars, so even if the technology use is early on the evolutionary scale, the questions are always fascinating. I consider it a fair barter to ask for my help in exchange for some intellectually stimulating conversation.

The professor in this case knew her data very intimately, so after an hour at the whiteboard, she had visual understanding of her data's structure, and I had a working specification for the database she needed. It took under four hours to crank out a database that met her needs. This afternoon she took it for a test spin, with only two minor change orders, requiring only a few minutes each.

The light has turned on for her, and I've already been informed that this consultation has helped her think about her larger book project. To me, that's great beyond my ability to express it.

So a word about tools here. We've always used FileMaker Pro in our shop for this type of work. It was never a perfect tool, but it was quick and simple, and with enough kludges, you could make it do what you wanted. At least it was cross-platform, which is essential for us.

Version 7 has come a long way, and it's now quite an elegant development package, especially if you get the Developer edition. There were so many powerful new features, but I especially appreciated being able to store all the tables and a (portable) script library in a single file. This not only makes relationships a snap to set up, but it's also really nice for the solutions developer. If you're using Developer edition to produce a stand-alone/runtime version of your application, there's just one file to give to the client.

Special thanks to colleague J.J., whom I know wishes not to be named on web sites, but who gave me the crash course on all the new features in FM Pro. It was impressive to watch a virtuoso fly through the application.


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