My work on the biography goes in cycles. In the past few weeks, I’ve mostly been on the low part of the cycle; I haven’t done much.

My interview yesterday with Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone invigorated my interest. After I spoke with them (and they’re fascinating people; be on the lookout for their books and workshops) I spent the rest of the day coding.

I learned the word “coding” in this context about a year ago; before that, my only definition of coding was “writing computer programs.” In my professional field, physics, the raw data is numeric; our analysis is entirely mathematical. In other sciences, such as history or sociology, the data is qualitative; it has to be coded before it can be searched, sorted, or analyzed. “Coding” means to look at a document and assign it key words or codes. With modern computer software, this is usually called “tagging,” but researchers were coding years before computer geeks were tagging.

For example, suppose I’m looking at a chapter on Druidry that Isaac wrote for his unpublished liturgy book. I might assign it the tags “druidry”, “unpublished”, and assign it a year if he dated it in any way. If he included something on how he found himself drawn to Druidry, I might include “Robert Larson”, “Carleton College”, “RDNA”, and “voodoo” depending on how he tells the story. (Are you wondering how “voodoo” relates to Isaac’s introduction to Druidry? Now you have a reason to read the biography!) Later, as I write the biography, I can search on the word “liturgy” and sort the result by date to get a picture of Isaac’s progress on his liturgy book over the years before he decided that it would not be published in that form.

Coding is dull and tedious work. I’ve been assured by that professional researchers regard it as an unavoidable necessity; no one codes for kicks. I have about 3000 files (roughly 7.5GB) to code from the documents I’ve scanned or copied from Isaac’s laptop; that does not include coding the transcripts of interviews (which I haven’t figured out how to do yet). Unlike Isaac’s calendars, there’s no way for me to share this task with other people. I will spend months, if not years, solely in the process of coding.

Why do it?

– I’m trained in a quantitative science. As part of this process, I’m learning that not all quantitative sciences are alike; an historian’s job is very different from a physicists’. I still have to take a quantitative approach to organizing the information. Perhaps a journalist has the training and discipline to do this kind of research without coding documents. I don’t.

– My memory stinks. I can’t hope to read through all this material, then later ask myself “Where was that handy article in which Isaac defined the origins of the terms Paleopagan, Mesopagan, and Neopagan?” I need to have the documents in a searchable form. These documents are scanned, not typed into a computer; OCR (optical character recognition) will only go so far. If I want to be able to search for material as I write the biography, I have to code them.

– Eventually I plan to give these digital documents to a university library, probably CDRS. Part of the value of the archive will be that someone has already coded the documents. A future historian may laugh at the job I did (I think no two researchers code in exactly the same way) but at least there’ll be a place for them to start.

told me the way she codes: Put on loud music, have plenty of coffee, and hunker down and just do the work. What I found worked for me to have plenty of sugar-free iced tea, and have an action movie playing in the background. Yesterday I went through all four Die Hard movies. Today it will be Mission Impossible. Next time it will probably be the Terminator movies.

Out of 3000 files, I’ve scanned 334 files so far. What’s this? Phaedra shipped me another box of documents. Back to work!

5 thoughts on “Coding

  1. You are definitely learning from this experience. And that’s the way to do it: find a project you care about and a reason to expand and then learn the techniques and lessons you need to internalize to reach these goals.

    It’s kind of fun, even if in the moment [or week or month (s)] it feels hard and discouraging. You will have done something valuable and created something beautiful at the end of this road. And you will be even more interesting and useful as a human being> And you’re already that. : )

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