making room for interpretation is essential to the preservation of culture
I would like to point up a widespread misconception, which is that electronic archiving and digital data retrieval are distinctly separate activities and that the former is comprised wholly of doggedly collecting and inputting “raw data” for future mining and public display. In reality the two are inextricably woven together. As I have emphasized in all I’ve written for this blog, what you decide to retrieve when you publish, in both form and substance, should determine how you organize everything—from the beginning.
Certainly, once you begin filling a database, it’s a thrill just to see everything together for the first time—ever! In fresh combinations, visual culture is almost always enchanting. Even if you think you are thoroughly familiar with your content, the ordinary sorting and filtering processes can be surprising sources of revelation. However, once the novelty wears off, you will want to find more compelling ways to compile your data and to effectively display the results to different groups of users—with more diversity, historical depth and frankly, more ambiguity.
“. . . imagine sorting a giant stack of paperwork into separate bins. Establishing which and how many bins are appropriate would be your first important task, but it is likely that as you proceed to sort your papers, you will begin to have a nagging sense that different bins are needed, or that some bins should be combined, or that some papers impossibly belong in multiple bins. You may even wind up with an extra bin or two marked “miscellaneous” or “special problems.” It is just this sort of tangle that database architecture seeks to obviate while making relational variables (bins) and their data (papers) available to a multiplicity of desirable logical operations, like queries.” 
Ambiguity is inevitable, because data are not abstract, they “require material expression.”  And besides, ambiguity is anything but undesirable when it comes to cataloging cultural objects. It is, rather, a catalyst for interpretation.
“Think of the ways people talk and write about data. Data are familiarly “collected,” “entered,” “compiled,” “stored,” “processed,” “mined,” and “interpreted.” Less obvious are the ways in which the final term in this sequence— interpretation— haunts its predecessors. At a certain level the collection and management of data may be said to presuppose interpretation. . . . Data need to be imagined as data to exist and function as such, and the imagination of data entails an interpretive base. (emphases mine) 
This might lead to rethinking the structure of your database, or adding interpretive tools to your publication.
But, consider this as well: the interpretive scholarly essay was and still is the best form of interpretation—far better than the interactive web page or social media. When it comes right down to it, scholarly essays are still the name of the game. In addition to the essays you include when you launch, one hopes there will be the ones you add later from contributors you find and from those who find you. It could keep going on and on.
Yes, here’s another great advantage to publishing a catalogue online.
Roger Shepherd is the Creative Director of panOpticon.
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