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For various types of research it might be necessary or useful to store data in a structured way. This is often the case, for example, for literary and (cultural) historical research based on source material. This can involve review data (in the context of reception studies), publication data, data taken from catalogues and auction lists, or data based on archival research, such as correspondence and personal details. Empirical language research often involves classifying certain data in the texts that have been examined. This can be done by adding formal annotations to the text, but in some cases researchers use a database.

Using a database makes it possible to, on the one hand, systematically store some of the data from the examined sources or texts and, on the other hand, to add classifications, interpretations and other analyses. This always involves data with a clear, fixed structure. Especially if the data are complex (if data relating to the letters as well as information about the senders and receivers has to be stored for a correspondence study), is it better to use a database program than a program like Microsoft Excel.
A database program allows you to:

  • enter complex data efficiently (without redundancy);
  • enter complex data in a controlled manner using input forms;
  • sort, search, filter and select complex data;
  • edit, process and present complex data in a variety of ways;
  • analyse data in different ways.

The first two aspects in particular make databases a more suitable way to store these data than programs such as Excel.

Core concepts when working with databases are: inventorizing (research) data, managing data (especially in the case of large amounts of data) and exploring and analysing the stored data.

It is important to establish at the earliest possible stage of a research project whether a database can be a useful tool. Because research usually begins with the collection of data, it is preferable to enter data directly into a suitable database. When entering data, you can use forms to support the input process, by guiding the input and performing a (partial) check on entered data. Moreover, it can often be difficult to migrate data from Word or even Excel to a database at a later stage, and in most cases this cannot be done (fully) automatically.

Online databases

Sometimes relevant data are available in an online database. However, these databases usually have limited search functionality. In order to make the most of working with these databases, it is often preferable to have access to the underlying database itself, so that it can be converted to a database program of your choice. Conversely, it is also possible to make data collected in the context of a particular research project available to the rest of the world through the internet. To do this, you have to convert a Microsoft Access database, for example, to a web database, which is then made accessible through one or more search forms.


The faculty's ICT Support Unit advises staff and students on how to use databases in their research and supports them in designing databases, forms for data input and in converting and creating web databases.

Other topics in this section: Examples   Software   Database design