The Medieval and Early Modern Data Bank: Prototype Completed

Martha Carlin, May 1989

Attendees of the December 1988 AHA annual meeting in Cincinnati had the opportunity to see a live demonstration of the recently-completed prototype version of The Medieval and Early Modern Data Bank (MEMDB).

MEMDB, which is based at Rutgers University and is cosponsored by The Research Libraries Group, Inc. (RLG), is an electronic reference library for medieval and early modern historians. The prototype is a self-contained version of the Bank that runs on AT-class personal computers. It contains a master data set of 13,254 medieval currency exchange quotations compiled by Dr. Peter Spufford of the University of Cambridge for his Handbook of Medieval Exchange (Royal Historical Society, 1986). These quotations date from 1106 to 1509, and cover all of Europe, Byzantium, the Levant, and North Africa. They form the equivalent of a four-century run of the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times for scholars who need information on the contemporary relative values of medieval currencies.

In 1988 The Bank, which is directed by Rudolph M. Bell, professor of history at Rutgers, and by Martha C. Howell, associate professor of history at Rutgers, also opened European offices in Leiden and Brussels, headed respectively by Professor Willem P. Blockmans of the Rijksuniversiteit to Leiden and Professor Eddy Van Cauwenberghe of the Universitaire Faculteiten Sint-Aloysius, Brussels, and the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. These office provide European users with direct access to the prototype and serve also as centers for the acquisition and distribution of data, and for the promotion of close scholarly contact with European scholars and their students.

In 1989–90 MEMDB will become an online facility, distributed through RLG's Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN) and available to RLIN subscribers in North America and Europe. When the Bank becomes RLIN-based its scope will expand to include virtually any scholarly compilation of data that can be presented in a tabular format. It will include data on subjects such as wages and prices, household size, demographics, wealth, manufacturing, property-holding, and nutrition, to name only a few categories, drawn from such sources as taxation records, wills and inventories, parish records, import and export records, household and estate accounts, prosopographical studies, and archaeological reports.

The online version of MEMDB also will provide reference aids, such as glossaries of weights and measures, gazetteers of Latin and vernacular place names, and a perpetual calendar. In addition, it will be clearing-house for information about data bases that are in progress or are held by other institutions, both in North America and abroad. Finally, MEMDB will serve as a prompt and effective means of publication for scholarly data sets that are too costly to publish in print, and are clumsy to publish in microform.

An important feature of MEMDB is that it incorporates discrete data sets into a single master data set, so that they will be simultaneously and mutually searchable. At the same time, however, each individual data entry retains its own original documentation, both source references and background text, and this documentation is always available to the user at a single keystroke. Another important feature of MEMDB is its extreme simplicity of operation. The prototypes' command language consists of only eight verbs ("actions") and eleven index names, and the online version will retain this parsimony of command language. Together, these features ensure that users of MEMDB can search the Bank's data holdings efficiently and comprehensively with no more prior knowledge or expertise than is required to operate a library's online catalogue or a bank's automated teller.

MEMDB is anxious to attract contributors of data as well as users of the Bank. Those interested should write to MEMDB c/o the Department of History, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey 08903; telephone the project at (201) 932-8316 or 932-8335; or send BITNET messages to BB.MXC@RLG.