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Authors : Wu He, Ph.D., M'hammed Abdous, Ph.D., Robert H. Holden, PhD.
Title: Developing an Online Searchable Bilingual Database for Learning about Central American Political History
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2007
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Source: Developing an Online Searchable Bilingual Database for Learning about Central American Political History
Wu He, Ph.D., M'hammed Abdous, Ph.D., Robert H. Holden, PhD.


vol. 10, no. 2, August 2007
Article Type: Article
URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.3310410.0010.202

Developing an Online Searchable Bilingual Database for Learning about Central American Political History

Wu He, Ph.D.

Center for Learning Technologies, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia, 23529

M'hammed Abdous *, Ph.D.

Center for Learning Technologies, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia, 23529

Robert H. Holden, Ph.D.

Department of History, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia, 23529

* Correspondence author. Tel: +1 7576836378; fax: +1 7576835690.

Abstract

This paper describes the design and development process that has resulted in a web-based bilingual historical database to assist university faculty in enhancing Central American Political History Education. This database is the only database of its type and provides an advanced search environment to identify essential biographical information about the heads of states and members of governing juntas of six Central American countries. This database is available in Spanish and English. The primary benefit of this unique database is to increase accessibility to this information and thus improve knowledge of this region.

Keywords: historical database, Central American Political History, biographical information

Project Background

The web enables both history students and professionals to practice the work of digital history.  [1] Digital history is the "study of the past using a variety of electronically reproduced primary source texts, images, and artifacts, as well as the constructed historical narratives, accounts, or presentations that result from digital historical inquiry."  [2] An astonishing amount of the analog historical record has already become digital in the past decade.  [3] However, many history web sites are built with a set of static HTML pages. Our review of literature found few publicly available articles which can guide historians to create history web sites by using dynamic web and database technology. Thus, the purpose of this paper is to share our experiences of developing an online searchable bilingual database about Central American political history. We hope the site-building experiences we share in this paper will benefit historians and history educators in developing digital history.

Before this project started, there was no searchable database on the Internet that included biographical data on the heads of state of the five extant Central American countries (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua) and one former country (Central American Federation) since the region's separation from Spain in 1821. The information was dispersed in various print resources such as books, manuscripts and archives and many resources were written in Spanish. As a result, students and faculties at Old Dominion University found it very difficult to access this information, and learning about the political leaders of the Central American countries was quite challenging for them. Specifically, due to Central American's numerous changes in political administration, the region has had more political leaders than North America, making it much harder to keep track of them historically.

In response to the demand for greater access to this information, Old Dominion University recognized the value of building an online searchable database, beginning with basic biographical data on the heads of state since 1821. Providing an online searchable database that hosts information about Central American political history would greatly help students and faculties to keep track of the information effectively and efficiently. Once the database was built, it could provide a great source of learning for historians and students to conduct related historical research. Since it would be published in both Spanish and English, users in Central America and elsewhere in Latin America would also find it accessible to them. This database could also be used to disseminate knowledge as well as a learning resource for history faculties to complement current teaching on Central America political history.

Project Goals and Development

Historians generally do not know much about the technology principles and features that make for effective communication on the web. [3] To meet the needs of history faculties, we at the Center for Learning Technologies at Old Dominion University helped them develop an online searchable Central American political historical database with the support of a faculty innovation grant from the university. The primary goals of this database project were to (1) increase accessibility to this information and thus improve knowledge and understanding of this region's political history, (2) help faculty integrate technology into their subject teaching and thus increase their teaching effectiveness, (3) help researchers keep track of this region's political history information effectively and efficiently, and (4) develop a bilingual database to support both Spanish and English. The result, we believed, would be a wider dissemination of information and the satisfaction of information needs of both Spanish and English language-oriented user groups around the world.

We took the following steps to build the database: requirement analysis, design of the system architecture, design of the interface and database structure, implementation of the system functions, tests of the system performance and functions, and evaluation of the system functionality and usability. The main steps are explained in detail below:

  1. Conducting requirement analysis with history faculty

    Meetings were held with the relevant member of the ODU history faculty in order to capture the needs and requirements for this database. For example, the historian was asked to share his insights, help decide the interface flow by creating a storyboard, and come up with system features for the database system. In addition, as a stakeholder of this project, he was responsible for the development, translation and quality/accuracy check of the Central America political historical information. During this project, he and his students consulted roughly 50 sources and collections to obtain related information for this database.

  2. System design and development

    According to the requirement analysis, we selected appropriate tools such as database software and the programming language for developing the database system. To deploy the database on the Web, Oracle was used as the backend database environment because of its rich capabilities in supporting the required functionalities. Specifically, we relied on the Oracle Intermedia product to index the historical information and search for historical information. PHP was used as a scripting language to create dynamic web content by querying the database. CSS was used to ensure the overall consistency of the system's look and feel. A computer programmer, an interface designer and a graphics designer were involved in the system design and development process.

  3. System testing and evaluation

    All system functions and information content were tested and evaluated by history faculty and their students prior to actual release of the system to the public. Specifically, faculty and their students proofread both languages on the interface and tested the information search functions with both languages on the interface. They also evaluated the interface usability and provided suggestions and feedback. Changes were made to make the user interface more user-friendly.

Key Features

The database  [4] in its present form has been through multiple iterations of "molding" and "tweaking" based on feedback collected from usability tests and faculty reviews. At the moment, this database is limited to biographical data on the more than 450 heads of state and members of governing juntas.

The following is a brief overview of the key features currently available in the system:

1. Advanced search Interface

As seen in Figure 1, users can search the biographic data by selecting one or more countries in Central America including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the defunct (1822-1839) Central American Federation from the search page. Users can also enter their queries to search by a combination of fields such as name, date, party affiliation, or profession. They can use the Boolean operators "and" and "or" to organize their queries. Users may also leave the search criteria blank to return all entries for the selected countries. The interface also allows users to select either Spanish or English for interface display at any time.

[figure]
Figure 1: Advanced Search Interface

2. Search Result List

As seen in Figure 2, the results page displays a list of search result records based on the users' queries. Each result contains country information and six key fields such as name, date of inauguration, and departure from office. Furthermore, users can click the "additional details" link to look at the details of each record.

[figure]
Figure 2: Search Result List

3. Detailed biographic record

Users can look at the details of each biographic record as displayed in Figure 3. A user-friendly print function is also available on the interface.

[figure]
Figure 3: A detailed biographic record

Key Issues with Bilingual Database

The primary language in Central America is Spanish and therefore most historical information is written in Spanish. One of the major challenges facing this database project was to support both Spanish and English in order to satisfy people's information needs in the language of their choice. Specifically, faculty require the database to offer access to historical information written in both Spanish and English, and the ability to search for and retrieve information using their preferred language via an interface written in their preferred language. Therefore, we set up two separate sets of tables within the database to contain resources written in the two languages.

The advantage of a bilingual database is that it can satisfy the needs of two different language groups and increase the number of potential website hits. However, the development of a bilingual database is a more challenging process than the development of a single language database and requires more budget, time and manpower. For example, language experts are needed to translate the Spanish resources into another language and proofread the language. An important lesson we learned from this project is that the database administrator should have a globalization support environment within the Oracle database, and support for different language and character sets already enabled, prior to database development. For example, the database administrator needs to configure the database to enable support for accent-insensitive and case-insensitive linguistic sorts and queries in advance. The reason for this is that many people do not know how to input Spanish words with accent marks via their keyboards. A second important lesson we learned is that the project team should have at least one member with a Spanish cultural background. It is suggested:

... Simply having users and testers from other countries is not enough; their input is valuable, but it comes too late in the design process to influence major design changes. Team members from different cultural backgrounds offer perspectives that an American-only team simply would not think to consider).  [5]

We suggest that future developers of bilingual databases take these factors into consideration in order to save time and costs in development. It is important for web developers to design the site with users in mind. As suggested, web designers have to consider "the learners who will use their sites, the objectives for presenting the materials and the type of interaction they wish to facilitate on the web site."  [6]

Conclusion

So far, this online database has received nearly three thousands visits since March 2006. The site has received solid ratings and positive comments from history faculty and students. Informal feedback indicates that this unique database is a great source of learning about Central American political history.

In this paper, we shared our experience at the Center for Learning Technologies at Old Dominion University in developing an online searchable historical database. This database is the only database of its type and provides an advanced search environment to identify essential biographical information about the heads of states and members of governing juntas of five extant and one former Central American countries. The main benefit of this unique database is to increase accessibility to this information and thus improve knowledge of this region. Faculty, students and researchers are now able to keep track of this region's political history information online in an effective and efficient way, without the trouble of spending hours going through the print sources. The online database system will be maintained and updated with the latest political information of this region on a regular basis. We hope historians and history educators can benefit from this example when they have translated their work to the web.

Acknowledgments

This project was supported by a faculty innovation grant from the Center for Learning Technologies at Old Dominion University. We want to thank the staff in the Center for Learning Technologies, particularly Dexter Marcelino for his help in designing the interface. We also wish to thank Dr. Robert H. Holden, professor of history at Old Dominion University, and his students for their assistance in the design and development of this unique historical database.

Notes

1. Ayers, E. L. (1999). The past, present and future of digital history [cited Dec. 17, 2006]. Available from The Virginia Center for Digital History Web site: http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/vcdh/PastsFutures.html.

2. Lee, J.K. (2002a). Digital History in the History/social Studies Classroom. The History Teacher, Vol.35(4), p.504.

3. Cohen, D., & Rosenzweig., R. (2005). Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

4. See the current version of the project database at http://al.odu.edu/history/central.

5. Hutchinson, H.B., Rose A., Bederson, B.B., Weeks, A.C., & Druin, A. (2005). The international children's digital library: a case study in designing for a multilingual, multicultural, multigenerational audience. Information Technology and Libraries, 24(1), p. 10.

6. Lee, J. K. (2002b). Principles for interpretative digital history web design. Journal for the Association of History and Computing 5(3), p. 2. Available from: http://mcel.pacificu.edu/JAHC/JAHCV3/K-12/lee.html.