Manipulating date strings (which is the data type we usually have in archival description), particularly when you have a lot of legacy data, is a pain. I was working with a friend to update some legacy data in her finding aid, and it occurred to me that there isn’t a lot of direct guidance out there about how to manipulate dates with various tools. So, here’s a run-down of some of my methods — please feel free to add your own in the comments.
Why does this matter?
I’ll be honest, in a lot of situations, date formats don’t matter at all. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — we put a whole lot of effort into creating structured data, considering that most of us just flatten it into HTML and put it up as a webpage. However, there is a brighter tomorrow. With structured data, you can make far better interfaces, and there are really nice examples of places that let you do stuff with date data.
In the Princeton finding aids site, you can sort by title, date, or container. This means that in a series like this, in the George F. Kennan papers, where the archivist (or possibly creator) filed by title, this isn’t the only way to look through materials.
Letting users sort by title or date means a few things — we can stop wasting time with alpha or chron arrangement and spend more of our energies on the true value that archivists add to description — context, meaning, transparency — without worrying that there’s too much for the researcher to sort through. It also means that we don’t have to presume that a researcher’s primary discovery vector is either time or title — we can let her choose for herself. Finally, and most importantly, we can let original arrangement schemes and organic order (the true intellectual basis of arrangement) reign supreme.
The other reason why date formats are important is because our content standard tells us they are. Now, I personally think that it’s actually far more important to associate an ISO-compliant date with a descriptive component, which can then be rendered any way you want, but since until recently our tools didn’t support that very well, I think that the DACS format of YYYY Month D brings us a step closer to easier date clean-up and extracting ISO compliant dates from date expressions.
Excel, odi et amo. Excel offers a GUI for programming-ish functions, but I find as I do more and more advanced stuff that I get frustrated by not knowing what exactly is happening with the underlying data. Dates are particularly frustrating, since Excel stores dates as a serial number starting with January 1, 1900. As an archivist who has PLENTY OF DATES from before then, this can lead to rage. There are a few ways to deal with this — if your dates are all 20th or 21st century, congratulations! You don’t have a problem. There are ways to get Excel to change the ways it assigns serial numbers, to allow for negative numbers, which let’s you do the normal sorting and date re-formatting. Or, you can store everything as text and move each part of the date string to its own column to manipulate it.
So, an example of a clean-up project:
In this data, we have a bit to clean up. When I start a clean-up project, I usually start with a pencil-and-paper list of all of the steps that I need to go through before I change anything. This way, I see if I need to do research about how to do a step, and I can also see if there are dependencies in the data that may require me to sequence these steps in a particular way. When you’re first learning, it’s easy to jump right in without planning, but trust me — every time I’ve been burned by automation it’s because I didn’t plan. In a live data environment, you should always know what the computer’s going to do before you run a command, even if that command is just a formula in Excel. The flip side of this is, of course, that as long as you have good back-ups, you should feel free to experiment and try new things. Just make sure you make the effort to figure out what actually happened when you’re experimenting suddenly produces the results you want to see.
So, here’s my list of steps to perform on this data.
- Check my encoding, which in this case just means which data is in which columns. Do you see the row where some of the date data is in the title column? It’s in row 4. I would probably survey the data and see how prevalent this kind of problem is. If it’s just a handful of errors, I’ll move the data over by hand. If there’s more, I’ll figure out a script/formula to automate this.
- Check for unwanted characters. In this case, get rid of brackets. In case you haven’t heard, brackets are not a meaningful way of indicating uncertainty to researchers. There is a certainty attribute on <unitdate> for that, which can then be rendered in your institution’s EAD -> HTML stylesheet. However, my problem with brackets is more fundamental — in archival description, the date element is just a transcription of what we see on the record. We don’t actually know that this date represents anything. So in reality, these are all guesses to varying degrees of certainty, with the aim of giving the researcher some clue to time.
- Fix the date format. DACS dates are YYYY Month D. (e.g., 2015 March 6)
- Create an ISO date to serialize as an @normal attribute with <unitdate>
Let’s skip the obvious clean-up tasks and go straight to formatting dates. If everything is after 1900 (and if everything is a three-part date), this is really straightforward.
First, create a new column. Use the DATEVALUE formula to tell Excel to regard your date string as a date value — if your date string is in B2, your formula in C2 should be:
Double-click on the bottom right corner of the cell to have that formula apply to the whole column.
Now that Excel knows that this is a date, you simply need to give it the format you want to see, in this case, yyyy mmmm d.
This works great for three-part dates after 1900. If that’s not your situation, there are a few things you can do. One of my favorite methods is to filter the date list to each of the different date types and apply the custom date format to each of these (trying to apply a custom date format to a date that doesn’t fit the type will result in really confusing and bad results). Another option is to split the date into three different columns, treat each like text, and then bring them back together in the order you want with the CONCATENATE formula. Play around — Excel doesn’t make it easy, but there are lots of options.
If you do a lot of data manipulation, I would definitely encourage you to stop torturing yourself and learn OpenRefine. I use it every day. OpenRefine uses something called GREL (Google Refine Expression Language — I wonder if they’ll be changing that to OREL now that this isn’t under the Google umbrella?), which is trickier to learn than Excel formulas but a lot more powerful and more in alignment with other programming languages. In fact, I should say that you only need to learn GREL for the fancy stuff — a lot of OpenRefine’s magic can be done through the GUI.
So, looking through this data set, I would do a lot of the same steps. One option is to just use the commands Edit Cells -> Common Transformations -> To Date, but unfortunately, most of these strings aren’t written in a way that OpenRefine understands them as dates.
The best path forward is probably to split this date string apart and put it back together. You could split by whitespace and turn them into three columns, but since some dates are just a year, or a year and a month, you wouldn’t necessarily have each of the three parts of the date in the columns where you want them.
So, I’m going to tell OpenRefine what a year looks like and ask it to put the year in its own column.
In this formula, I’m partitioning the string by a four-digit number and then taking that part of the partition for my new column. In the case of the year, the formula is:
For a month it’s:
And for the day it’s:
There may be a more elegant way of partitioning this all as one step, but I don’t yet know how!
Then, once you have each of these parts of the date in their own columns, they should look like this:
The final step is to put the pieces back together in the order you want them. You can do this by clicking on the Year column, and selecting “Create column based on this column.” Then, use GREL to put everything in the order that you want to see it.
The formula for this is:
value + " " + cells["Month"].value + " " + cells["Day"].value
And voila, you’ve turned your non-DACS date into a DACS-formatted date. You can use similar steps to make a column that creates an ISO-formatted date, too, although you’ll first have to convert months into two-digit numbers.
The two methods above require ETL — extract, transform, load. That is, you’re going to get data out of the database (or transform it into a tabbed sheet from xml) and then get it back into the database or the EAD (and then the database). There is a better way if you’re using Archivists’ Toolkit or ArchivesSpace, and it involves doing SQL updates. I’m going to punt on this for now, because I know that this will be a huge part of my future once we get into ArchivesSpace (I’ll also be creating normalized dates, which is data that Archivists’ Toolkit can’t store properly but ASpace can). So, stay tuned!