Database struggles

Much of the last week I have been sweating over a database I first wrote well over a decade ago.  Somehow or other I had been persuaded by my friend Rose Pipes to produce the database primarily as a management tool for a project to produce a biographical dictionary, or encyclopedia, of the lives of over 800 Scottish women from all walks of life,  from early days to today.

This was very much a collective project and Rose, the lead editor, needed the means not just to keep track of progress of a project involving a vast number of contributors, but also to be able to produce reports for fellow editors and for the publishers, Edinburgh University Press.  The database also needed to be able to contain the entries as they arrived, generate a complex thematic index as well as cross referencing.

I must have been mad to agree, as I am very much a self-taught amateur of the database software I used, Filemaker Pro (a powerful database package for Mac and Windows supposedly within the grasp of the non-programmer…). All the more so because I was very much on my own, knowing nobody in France who knew Filemaker, and at that time I did not even have broadband to seek help from friends in Edinburgh or on the internet.

One of my most vivid memories of that time was not directly about technology, but about how to generate a consistent form of the names of the women, ranging from ‘The Blak Lady’ to various ennobled ladies with multiple names and titles.  I sought the advice of my father-in-law, a prestigious academic librarian, then in his nineties.  He arrived in France not just with complex instructions for indexing but with detailed entries of the women I had given as examples – he had not been able to resist the temptation to research these women (outside his remit!).

Amazingly, despite hiccups and sweat (Rose’s and mine), the database made its contribution and the dictionary was duly published in 2007. I heaved a huge sigh of relief: the funding had been so precarious that there was no chance of a second edition.

But there was!  A couple of years ago EUP said they would produce a second edition.  Rose contacted me and of couse initially I said “no way!”.  I was a decade older, recovering from cancer, and no further on in database skills – I had not touched filemaker for several years.  But of course, I gave in.  Rose is an old friend, the project is as always, running on a shoe string, and it was not clear who else they could ask to do the work.  Besides, I would have had to clean up the database, which is a bit like a very messy house with all the chaos hidden in the cupboards, before passing it on.

It’s not been easy: the database was not designed for multiple editions, I had to design scripts to integrate the two generations of subjects, cross referencing, changing themes, new authors…. ….   The revised database was ready (hopefully) for use just before I went into hospital last autumn.  But it had not been sufficiently tested, either by me or by Rose, and recently we have hit a major glitch (bug? error?) in the area to do with cross-referencing.

I have been sweating, as this time I am really responsible for the major problems.  I compounded them by renaming two of the 11 files which make up the database – without, as it turned out, sufficient knowledge to ensure that all references to these files were also modified.  Hence some painful time going through a huge number of scripts.

I finished all this yesterday, sent the revised database back to Rose and I’m now waiting in suspense.  All this explains my current obsession and inordinately long entry in my blog! Just to give you a flavour, here are the 10 of the 11 files with their multiple relational links. And if there is anybody out there willing to help, I would be over the moon.





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