Gloucestershire Local History banner

Introduction to Recording and Retrieving Historical Information

Guidelines No. 9         Issue 3.1:         June 2007

These guidelines have been prepared in response to a request from the Local History Association Computer Group for an introduction to recording and retrieving historical information. They provide a general overview of the subject.  This introduction will give advice in the form of answers to the following questions:- 


1. How is information managed by a computer?
2. How do I know if my information is suitable for a computer database?
3. How do I manage historical information on a computer?
4. What specialist software is available for information management?
5. My information consists mostly of text files, what system should I use?
6. My information consists of tables of historical information, what system should I use?
7. I have a great deal of information, in a whole variety of forms, what system should I use?
8. I am planning a historical database which will be continuously updated and expanded.  Much of the information is suitable for tabulation, which system should I use?

1.       How is information managed by a computer?          

A computer stores and manages information using appropriate software.  If you have a computer you already have at least one and probably two means of managing information, for instance, with Windows Explorer you save, organise and retrieve the information that you have stored in files and folders.  Similarly if you use Outlook Express to manage your e-mail you will have your correspondence stored in folders. Windows Explorer can be used to manage simple collections of historical information, such as a collection of census data relating to a specific date and location. On the other hand if you wish to manage all the information pertinent to the history of a town or other large district, purpose designed software is likely to be required.  [top]

2.       How do I know if my information is suitable for managing with a computer?     

The simple answer to this is that it is possible to store almost any kind of information on a computer.  Textual and numerical information have always been relatively easy to store on computers.  Photographs, other graphic images, sound or video recordings can also be stored, however these can produce very large files and if there is a large number, they may need to be stored on CDs or other high capacity memory devices.  These can still be accessed by the software which handles your information, so are not necessarily a problem.  Also computer hard discs are continually increasing in capacity and consequently there may be less need for external storage.  [top]

3.       How do I manage historical information on a computer?         

We will start by assuming that your information is already available in digital form.  The information will be stored in files, either on the computer's hard disc or external memory devices, for instance, compact discs (CDs).  To make full use of your information you will need to organise, manipulate, retrieve and present it:

  1. Files may be organised using the operating system of the computer, for instance, Windows Explorer.
  2. Manipulating, retrieving and presenting the information, can, in some cases be done using the facilities that come with most word processor or spreadsheet software, for instance, Word or Excel.  These packages are relatively easy to use, their facilities include the ability to cut, copy and paste information, search for particular information, and create new documents to present your results. Spreadsheet software also allows you to carry out calculations and produce graphs and diagrams.

Specialist software for information management is designed to help you carry out all the above tasks, and allow much more sophisticated organisation, manipulation and retrieval of the information.  It may also have facilities which allow you to improve the quality of the information and reduce the likelihood of error.  However, these advantages do come at a cost.  This software is much more complex in operation than either word processing or spreadsheet software.  Anyone wanting to use this sort of software would need to undertake some training (self teaching is possible with the 'Idiot', 'Dummies', 'Teach Yourself' and similar guides).  [top]

4.       What specialist software is available for information management?         

At the lowest level there may be no need for specialist software.  Your computer operating system plus a word processor, e.g. Microsoft Word or spreadsheet software, e.g. Microsoft Excel, may be adequate for the task.  At higher levels you may need a Database Management System (DBMS).  There are two basic types of DBMS software which are of particular use to the local historian, free format DBMS, e.g. Bekon Idealist or relational DBMS, e.g. Microsoft Access. To understand the situations for which each type is suitable, please refer to the specific case studies which follow.  [top]

5.       My information consists mostly of text files, what system should I use?

As an example for this question we shall assume the following criteria:

  1. The information: Is either in or can easily be converted into word processor files. 
  2. There is a need to: a. Search for terms in individual documents, or for documents containing the terms b. Present the information as the original documents, or generate reports / articles which will include extracts from a range of documents.

Example: A collection of transcribed letters relating to a company or public body.

Suitable management systems: word processor (e.g. Word) and standard operating system (e.g. Windows Explorer),which is readily available, or a free format DBMS (e.g. Idealist).  [top]

6.       My information consists of tables of historical information, what system should I use.

As an example for this question we shall assume the following criteria:

  1. The information: a. Is in tables or can easily be arranged in table b. Will be expanded by the addition of other tables or by entering data where automatic checking of accuracy and validity are not required.  
  2. There is a need to: a. Be able to reorganise the tables, e.g. arrange information in alphabetical order of surname / place name b. Carry out simple searches of the data c. Make calculations or draw graphs of any numerical information d. Extract information from specific rows or columns.

Example: Census tables for a particular geographical area

Suitable management systems: Spread Sheet (e.g. Excel), which is relatively easy to use, or the more complex relational DBMS (e.g. Access) [top]

7.       I have a great deal of information in a variety of forms, what system should I use?          

As an example for this question we shall assume the following criteria:

  1. The Information: a. Is in the form of word processed documents, tables, graphs, images etc.
  2. There is a need to: a. Search for information across the whole of the database b. Add new information as appropriate c. Extract and present information in a form which can be used by word processing or similar software.

Example: A database of all historical information relating to a small town.

Suitable management system: Free format DBMS (e.g. Idealist).  [top]   

8.       I am planning a historical database which will be continually updated and expanded.  Much of the information is suitable for tabulation.  What system should I use?         

As an example for this question we shall assume the following criteria:

  1. The information: Is capable, in the main of being stored in tabular form, although there may be some need to include or give access to some lengthy passages of text, word processed documents, external tables, photographs or other digital files.
  2. There is a need to: a. Add information to the tables as appropriate b. Automatically checks that the information input conforms to user-defined rules e.g. to avoid variant spellings of proper names or to check that a numerical entry is within a pre-determined range. c. Ensure that changes made to a preexisting entry in a particular table will trigger changes in all related tables d. Carry out searches of varying complexity, including extracting information which meets specified criteria from one or more tables and presenting it in the form of a new table.  An example might be to produce a table of all events which happened in Gloucester between 1860 and 1869, where a particular business was involved e. Organise the tables in such a way that there is a minimum of duplication of information f. Analyse numerical data g. Present the information in an appropriate manner or allow the presentation to be carried out or modified using associated software, e.g. a word processor

Example: A sites and monuments database containing information about the sites and monuments themselves as well as information about functions, organisations and individuals associated with the monuments.

Suitable management system: Relational DBMS (e.g. Access).  [top]

                Ron Beard February 2005