Using an Access Database for Research

A few years back, I watched a CSPAN2 interview that changed the way I write major papers. The program was Booknotes, and the guest was Pulitzer Prize winner, Taylor Branch. What I like about Booknotes is that they sometimes venture into the author’s office to get a feel for how he or she actually tackles the grimy business of research.

Branch did not disappoint. To research his three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr., he made use of a massive Microsoft Accessdatabase. In one table, he had a row for every source he read. The row contained all of the relevant bibliographic information and was labeled with a unique source identifier number.

In another table, he entered every quote from these sources that he thought provided insight. These might include, for example, a few lines from a letter he found in the Martin Luther King Jr. archives, or a provocative conclusion made in one of the myriad existing biographies. Each quote got its own row in the table. The whole text of the quote was entered, along with the date it was made on (or referred to), and, most important, the source identification number that links the quote to the relevant source in the source table. (This is called a relational databasebecause the different tables connect on specific columns. Click here for a tutorial.)

When Branch finished his research, he had over 18,000 quotes and hundreds of sources. When it came time to write, he sorted his quote table by date. This allowed him to move chronologically through Dr. King’s life. During important periods, Branch sometimes found that he had dozens of insider quotes for each day!

The key here is that the writing process had been simplified. It was just Branch and his database. As he moved through the important periods of Dr. King’s life, he could efficiently and comprehensively consult every last relevant piece of information about that period, and then, with this background solidly in mind, begin to weave together his own, highly informed version of the story.


Captured because it sounds much like what I use mxplx for in my research.

Folksonomies: new media research organization mxplx

Martin Luther King (0.909956 (neutral:0.000000)), Luther King Jr. (0.909737 (neutral:0.000000)), Pulitzer Prize winner (0.771809 (positive:0.313029)), unique source identifier (0.743413 (positive:0.328897)), massive Microsoft Accessdatabase (0.732584 (negative:-0.386242)), relevant bibliographic information (0.719992 (positive:0.328897)), myriad existing biographies (0.715233 (positive:0.514879)), King Jr. archives (0.711387 (neutral:0.000000)), important periods (0.708460 (neutral:0.000000)), source identification number (0.705750 (positive:0.655158)), Dr. King (0.690641 (neutral:0.000000)), quote table (0.594397 (positive:0.243968)), Research Captured (0.575128 (positive:0.668232)), grimy business (0.571756 (positive:0.695079)), Taylor Branch (0.562008 (neutral:0.000000)), three-volume biography (0.557800 (neutral:0.000000)), CSPAN2 interview (0.556546 (neutral:0.000000)), major papers (0.556008 (neutral:0.000000)), Access Database (0.555066 (positive:0.668232)), provocative conclusion (0.544836 (positive:0.514879)), source table (0.532834 (positive:0.655158)), relevant source (0.524363 (positive:0.655158)), writing process (0.518586 (negative:-0.355675)), relational databasebecause (0.518224 (neutral:0.000000)), different tables (0.516775 (neutral:0.000000)), specific columns (0.511054 (neutral:0.000000)), relevant piece (0.510340 (positive:0.477441)), King’s life (0.507962 (neutral:0.000000)), insider quotes (0.505318 (negative:-0.254991)), row (0.455503 (positive:0.317138))

Taylor Branch:Person (0.845010 (negative:-0.126179)), Martin Luther King Jr.:Person (0.736685 (positive:0.045599)), Pulitzer Prize:EntertainmentAward (0.306853 (positive:0.313029)), Booknotes:City (0.290323 (positive:0.695079))

Martin Luther King, Jr. (0.953993): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc | yago
Source (0.705904): dbpedia
Pulitzer Prize (0.631317): website | dbpedia | freebase | opencyc | yago
John F. Kennedy (0.622666): website | dbpedia | freebase | opencyc | yago
Begin (0.618143): dbpedia
Taylor Branch (0.607208): dbpedia | freebase | yago
Southern Christian Leadership Conference (0.586845): website | dbpedia | freebase | yago
People celebrated in the Lutheran liturgical calendar (0.586324): dbpedia

 Monday Master Class: How to Build a Paper Research Database
Electronic/World Wide Web>Internet Article:  Hacks, Study (October 1st, 2007), Monday Master Class: How to Build a Paper Research Database, Study Hacks Blog, Retrieved on 2013-10-10
  • Source Material []
  • Folksonomies: research productivity