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  • Writer's pictureTalya Housman

How I got here

Historians who study sex and gender have a battle cry. Well, they have several. But a strong one is – DON’T TRUST ESTABLISHED WISDOM ON WHAT IS AND IS NOT IN THE ARCHIVE! TRADITIONAL HISTORIANS IGNORE SOURCES ON SEX AND GENDER!

Initially, I wanted to write about public presentation of sexual violence. I first began exploring legal records because I was told I needed to address the real presence of these crimes in some way, not just their representation in the public sphere. So I hemmed and hawed and stumbled into the stacks at Widener library looking for published court records from the 1640s and 1650s.

I knew the battle cry. I knew there must be records of sexual violence in the 18 years of the Civil Wars and Interregnum where traditional thought indicated there was barely a trace.

Yet I was STILL shocked at the overwhelming amount of material that I managed to pull out of the published accounts. By the time I left on my research year, I had collected 80 cases of rape and attempted rape just from published collections. I began my research year in the National Archives looking at the records of the Assize court, which was the highest court in the common law system in England during the 1640s and 1650s. By December I had completed the Home and Northern circuit records at the National Archives and in the new year I moved into local archives looking at records from the second highest court: the Quarter Sessions. From Essex, to Somerset, to Sussex, to Norfolk, to Kent, to Wiltshire – a year later I had collected over 2500 cases of sexual crime and gendered violence in over 5000 documents.

But I had a problem. The spreadsheets I had haphazardly constructed throughout my research project had begun to fail. Anyone in my cohort can attest to my neurosis in making spreadsheets. One of them once jokingly said “if you have a question on something, Talya has a spreadsheet on it.”

It was understandable that these sheets couldn’t take my research: I had multiple sheets in a single file, some with as many as 60 columns and 2500 rows, and I had calculations running constantly. Excel kept shutting itself down and I realized my spreadsheets would not work for analyzing my work.

Enter Mark Merry, PhD. Mark ran a databases course at the Institute for Historic Research in London that a friend of mine took so I emailed him to see if he had any advice for me. We sat down in Mark’s office and I showed him my various spreadsheets, calculations, and explained what I wanted to do.

“What you need is a relational database.”

I had never heard of a relational database. It sounded scary. Like big data and all those other tech buzzwords that sound simultaneously meaningless and overwhelming. Mark pulled out large sheets of paper and made me start sketching relationships between my different spreadsheets. Unbeknownst to me, I had just created my first data map.

From there, it has been a bit of a ride, but I am currently learning Python and taking some online courses in relational database design to create my database.

This blog will chart my progress in building my relational database of legal cases to help other historians and humanities scholars looking to venture into database design.

If it brings me anyone or any advice on how to better build my own database, well, that's just an added plus.

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