Slave Biographies


Realization of the goals of the Slave Biographies depends on contributions of databases to the project.   We anticipate two types of contributors:

  1. Those with existing databases.
  2. Those who will construct databases for the site.

If you are in the second category, you may wish to skip immediately to the second section and return to the first after it. 

The website will eventually provide its own data entry forms to assist in the collection of data on individual slaves.  A prototype has been designed using Google Forms

If you have already compiled your database, Form 1 contains the information about it that we would like you to provide at the same time as you submit it.  If you are considering creation of a database, Forms 2 and 3 will also be of interest, as explained below.

Contribution of existing databases

Slave biographies invites submissions from anyone who has compiled a database in which the records are individual slaves.  The database will be stored in a repository maintained by Matrix, the Center for Application of New Technologies at Michigan State University.   We guarantee permanent storage of the database in its original format and a website that will maximize its accessibility to other researchers.

To contribute an existing database, begin by filling out Data Entry Form 1.  It asks for contact information and for a summary description of the database for the Databases section of the Slave Biographies website.  Since a gmail account facilitates use of Data Entry Form 1, it is recommended that you create an account, if you do not already have one, before filling in the forms available for the moment on Google Drive.  Clicking on the “Submit” button at the bottom of Form 1 will enter the information into a spreadsheet used by Slave Biographies to keep track of contributors.  Send the database itself, and related files such as a codebook, as an email attachment if it is not too large.  The simplest method of file transfer is to copy the files to the public Dropbox folder for Slave Biographies.

We accept files in almost any format and will convert them into several different formats to enhance their accessibility.

The original file with the database will be stored as received.  A few small modifications will be made in a copy of the database for purposes of its display on the website: the addition of a database id to distinguish it from other databases contributed to Slave Biographies and a slave id corresponding to the case number of each record in the original database.  In every other respect, your database will be displayed as submitted, i.e., with the same variable names and labels, values and value definitions, and the same coding of records.  Before sending us your database, please review names, labels, and codes to make them as understandable as possible to users who view them for the first time.  The “Search records” section of the website has room for displaying 9 to 10 fields in a contributed database.  You should indicate which fields to display there and in what order from left to right.  The full set of variables in your database will be displayed in a window opened by clicking on a particular record.  Organizing them into logical groups will make them easier to understand. 

Although contributors will make the final decision on all matters related to the display of their databases on the website, the editorial board of Slave Biographies encourages researchers to seek its advice on any matter relating to preparation of a database for submission.  Should a contributor wish to delay display and/or ability to download a database, Slave Biographies will block or limit access for as long as the contributor requests.

When a copy of the database is made accessible to other scholars and the general public, they will be able to do whatever they want with the downloaded copy: correct information that is miscoded, add additional variables and cases, combine it with another database.  The original database remains unchanged.  Our policy is to accept modified databases as new databases with their own identification number.  Subsequently, users will be able to download both the original database and revised versions.  When this happens, we will encourage communication between the contributor of the original database and scholars who incorporate it into a new study.  One role of Slave Biographies is facilitate collaboration among researchers who might otherwise work independently.

New databases

Primary sources with information about individual slaves are abundant and for the most part not yet adapted to computer-assisted research.  To encourage researchers to compile and contribute databases to the Slave Biographies repository, we provide data entry forms inspired by best practices in constructing historical databases.  A full description of the protocol to which we adhere is found in Kees Mandemakers and Lisa Dillon, “Best Practices with Large Databases on Historical Populations,” Historical Methods, 37: 1 (Winter 2004), 34-38.

Foremost among these practices is first entering data exactly as found in sources, leaving for a second step extrapolation and recoding of data variables into categories better suited to quantitative analysis.   

We recommend that contributors of new databases begin by entering as much information in Form 1 as possible and submitting it without further delay.  Details like the number of variables and records in a database will obviously have to wait until its completion, but informing us through Form 1 of your intention to create a database will enable us to stay in touch with you, put you in contacts with researchers with related interests, and provide whatever assistance we can as you enter data. 

Data entry forms 2 and 3 are intended for use as data is entered document by document.

are prototypes of customized forms accessible through the Slave Biographies website.  Google forms are intended for single responses to a questionnaire sent to many respondents, not for multiple entries by one person.  Nevertheless, we have used them to develop the content of forms, and they can be used for data entry until the programming for our own forms is completed. 

To use the Google forms, copy them into your own account so that only you will see the “responses,” i.e., the data as you enter it.  The responses are stored in a Google spreadsheet.  For purposes of revision of data after it has been entered for the first time, we recommend downloading this spreadsheet into Excel and viewing it through “Form” (among options under the “Data” tab).  It will allow you to view responses one by one and make revisions as needed.  Once you have entered data for several records, you can submit the spreadsheet to Slave Biographies for feedback on your coding procedure.  And, of course, when the database is complete, it can be submitted as an Excel file, a Google spreadsheet, an SPSS file, or in whatever format you choose.

The entry forms are for data variables only, information as found in the document, to be entered as closely as possible to the way it appears in the document.  In addition to these variables, you will want to derive other variables for statistical and graphical analysis.  For example, where there are a large number of values, as for birthplace, occupations or illnesses, you may wish to group values into three to five general categories for representation of results in tables and graphs.  It may be useful to create dichotomous variables with two values, 1 and 0, to indicate the relevance of a record to a particular topic like the slave family or manumissions.

In some cases, you may decide to use recoding schemes developed by other researchers, especially if you want to compare results.  At Slave Biographies, we expect every contributed database to be distinctive in certain respects and will respect whatever set of variables a contributor proposes.  There is nothing obligatory about the data entry forms.  Users who conceptualize their own coding scheme are as welcome to deposit their databases in the Slave Biographies repository as ones who make use of the forms.  When carefully entered, data variables will enable another researcher to see exactly how a recoded variable is constructed and replicate statistics based on it.

When your database is completed, submit it to Slave Biographies following the steps outlined above for contributors of existing databases.