Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What is a Plinth?

When I recently reviewed a book (Organizing Exhibitions by Freda Matassa. London, 2014)  on organizing museum  exhibits.  One several  of the check lists are items the curators need.  As the book was written by a British author, several of the choices were more British than American English, but I was able to figure everything out except for the word, “plinth.”  One way to figure out is from context or a glossary in the book.  Here are three examples from the book and none offer clues as to the meaning.  On page 47 is list of installation items, "display cases and plinths."  On page 72, A wide plinth can act as a deterrent." On page 133, "Items on a plinth or shelf can be placed one metre from the edge ..."   I looked for "plinth" in my colegiate dictionary and even though it had the word and a definition, the meaning was not clear.

I looked up "plinth" in the Oxford English Dictionary, which reports “plinth” is on unknown origins.  It appears in ancient Latin and Greek as well as modern French, Spanish, Greek, and German.  If it is a loan word, the original language is not Latin,  Greek or a Semitic language.  OED says the first English use was in the book, The first and chief groundes of architecture vsed in all the auncient and famous monymentes  by John Shute .  1st edition, 1563.  (Note in 1563 English spelling had not yet been standardized.) In folio X is a picture of column with all the parts labeled. The “Plinthus” is the solid support at the bottom of the column.   In architecture it is clear that the word means the right prism (rectangular solid) used as a support for at column.

In room decoration a plinth is the base along a wall that prevents chairs from hitting the wall.  An early description of the process of creating a plinth for a room is found in the article, Agricultural architecture and engineering. No. ix by R. S. Hunt page 14 in Journal of Agriculture,  July 1853 (Google books: http://books.google.com/books?id=1VI523q3l2wC&pg=PA14&dq=Farmer%27s+Magazine+plinths&hl=en&sa=X&ei=YfapU-juJdi2yATXjYIg&ved=0CDkQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%20plinth&f=false)   Today one can go to Ikea or Home Depot and purchase material for block plinths to be used as molding or plinth that can used as a support for a post or column.

None of these uses of the word fit what “plinth” means for museum exhibits.  I looked in a catalog for library and museum supplies.  A plinth is a rectangular solid (right prism) that supports museum display cases.   A plinth could also be used inside a display case to hold the item on display.  The supplier uses “plinth” as a shape to describe the base of a display case.


“Fabric deck and back panel; glass shelves; archival materials; fluorescent light hood; 6" plinth base”

It is interesting that most of the companies that sell plinths for museums are in Great Britain. Perhaps in the US  most people just use other words such as “base,” “pedestal, “ or “support?” I know what a "plinth" is but I am not sure if the word is more British than American usage.  Perhaps you should ask your colleagues if they can use "plinth" in a sentence?

6/29/2014   Addendum

Yesterday I had a guest from London join us for lunch.  I asked him if he ever heard of the word, "plinth" and did he think it was a British word.  He said that he heard of the word because in Trafalgar Square in central London is a group of three statues.  The fourth plinth was supposed to hold a statue of William IV, but they ran out of money.  For 150 years the fate of the empty plinth was debated.  In 1999 it was decided that it would be used for the temporary display of contemporary art.

6/30/2014  Comment received.  Included with permission.

A new Brit/American usage difference to add to my list. Yes, "plinth" for Brits is the normal word for the thing you stick a statue on. I do believe we use the expression "to put s.o. on a pedestal", although you would have to check with somebody whose British English is less contaminated than mine!

 John Williams
Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe
Bologna, Italy

Friday, June 6, 2014

What is a Database?

One would think that the word “database” is an easy, straight forward word that as a native English speaker would not need an explanation. It is not an easy word to explain.  If I hold up an object to a native speaker, they should be able to tell me what it is.  I hold up the object below and a child in France would say it is a “livre;” a German would say, “Buch;” a Latin speaker “liber;” a Hebrew speaker “sefer.”  However, to a Yiddish speaker what it is called depends on the content. The answer could be, “buch” or “sefer.”

Suppose a reader came into the library and wanted a book.  The library has 1000’s of books.  You would ask him/her to be more precise.  When you find a book in the catalog the call number will tell you where to find it. The reader starts with a book describing the kind of object wanted and eventually finds the precise items needed. A similar thought process could help a hungry person find food in a grocery store. 

Abstract concepts are harder to define.  The meaning of “data” is moving target.  One person’s data is the basis for another person’s information.  One “datum[1]” is the smallest unit that represents objects, events, or entitles that have meaning in the user’s universe. The last part of this definition is where the context and flexibility make the exact definition imprecise.  In the computer language 0’s and 1’s are bits and are used for bytes.  Each byte represents a letter of the alphabet. Letters make words; words make sentences, sentences make paragraphs, and so forth.  A small example of a database is a sentence.  The characters (data) are organized into words and related to give meaning. A database is an organized collection of data. The database may be on paper, electronic or stored in any other media one could imagine.  A directory, an encyclopedia, or a card catalog may be considered databases.

In March a librarian asked about the difference between updating a database and updating a website.  At first I was going to dismiss the question as being too naïve for me to bother, but then I read an article by Denis Pombriant in CRM Magazine [2] “Data versus knowledge”  Pombriant talks about using data as a way to gain knowledge.  This flow of knowledge is a concept that I have long talked about.   He talks about data points that are not quantitative.   For example shoes can have size, color, style but also shipping records, sales records, etc.  Taken with the data from other sales, the business can gain the knowledge to make informed business decisions. Knowledge is a property of the human mind, but information and data are in constant motion.  He concludes that one must cultivate (in other words “organize”) data in order to turn it into information. 

If we follow this line of reasoning, data is the source that when it is once organized and stored may become information.  There is no definition of data that can fit every situation. 

Databases by their very nature are meant to by dynamic and always changing.  Paper databases, of course, change a lot slower than electronic databases. 

Returning to the original question about the difference between updating a website and updating a website, one has to figure out the type of entity one is dealing with. There are two kinds of web pages – dynamic and static.  Dynamic web pages are formed with data from many sources.  Every time one visits the site, it is different.  A dynamic database could be a portal to more information or display information based on a search of a database.  For example a web based email program will display the mail with the featured offered by the programmers.  The display changes based on messages that come and go.  A library catalog or a retail business site are examples or web sites that search databases.  A static page is coded by the creator and will display the same way until the creator changes it.

Updating a database is independent of the display of data on the screen.  The data could be displayed on multiple interfaces.  Many libraries have multiple search options for their catalogs.  For a static page, only an authorized user may update it.

[1] Just a reminder -- “data” is from Latin and is plural.  The singular is “dataum.”  However, in common usage “data” is used as singular noun.

[2] CRM means customer relations management.  This is publication aimed at helping business becoming more tuned in to the needs of customers.  Full citation: Pombriant, Denis.  “Data versus knowledge: gaining insight from your data means rethinking its definition.”  CRM Magazine April 2014. Online: http://www.destinationcrm.com/Articles/Columns-Departments/Reality-Check/Data-Versus-Knowledge-95253.aspx