The Joys of Data Entry

A few months ago I mentioned that one of the chapters of my new book would be about the public reception of the early Enlightenment texts I’m writing on.  Now, the spreadsheet of subscribers to Scottish books (c.1700-1740) continues to grow apace and, indeed, that’s what I’m trying to finish so I can move forward to actually interpreting the data and writing something about it.

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The raw material.

Spreadsheets, databases, and statistical analyses are not really my cup of tea.  I find them cool and often helpful, but left to my own devices I’d much rather dig deep into a single text.  For this chapter, though, that’s not an option.  It’s all very well to write about “sexy things I’ve found in the archives”, but I also want to make a convincing argument that these particular sexy things were in the mainstream of Scottish intellectual culture.  That means producing some statistics.

And so I’ve been experiencing the joys of data entry for the last week or two: plugging the raw data of eighteenth-century subscription lists into an ever-growing spreadsheet and separating out that data so that I can easily search on a person’s name, occupation, place of residence, and which book or books they subscribed for.  It’s not the most intellectually stimulating occupation, but the more I do it the more I realise that producing the dataset is actually an important part of its interpretation.  As I tap away at my keyboard, in between sips of coffee, I begin to see patterns: a certain group of individuals has subscribed to all three of these books, a particular locality is predominant amongst the subscribers to another, this kinship group has gone heavily into subscription culture while another nearby remains aloof.

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In progress, but making progress.

In the best sort of way, the process has both generated questions and made me think about what I’m trying to do in a different way.  I’ve come to realise that while (thankfully!) my initial premise as to the widespread engagement with subscription culture across Scotland was true, the particularities of it are very different from what I’ve expected.  I also now want to understand things which I wasn’t even aware of before: how was knowledge of a subscription passed around a specific community?  Why are some relatively rural localities heavily over-represented while others are entirely absent?  How did Scots abroad come to know of and then engage with a subscription drive?  Why are comparatively few scholars (in fact, authors of other books published by subscription) represented on surviving subscription lists?

So perhaps data entry and statistical analysis isn’t so bad after all.  Who knows, I might even put a graph or two into the final chapter . . . .

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

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