This project is indebted to many groundbreaking digital projects that preceded it. Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present first launched in 2006, and offers “a comprehensive scholarly history of writing by British women.” It presents detailed biographical and historical information about women writers, enabling users access to an “extensive micro-history, or very large textbase of accounts of individuals in their time.” (Brown, Clements and Grundy, “A History of Women’s Writing,” 2006). The Orlando project builds upon feminist recovery projects, being one of the first digital projects to aggregate existing scholarship in order to document the extensive contributions of women to literary and intellectual history in Britain. According to its editors,
This work of recovery has been a remarkable feat. Massive scholarly effort, acknowledged in Orlando’s extensive bibliographical references, has since the late 1960s been directed at researching, republishing, re-evaluating and recontextualizing female authors, and many studies of women’s movements, genres, and periods have appeared over recent years. These have made available for critical examination whole new territories of women’s literary production, have cast on them various interpretive lights, and have, in turn, allowed this vast new material to throw its light on institutional assumptions and practices. All of these projects of recovery have dramatically increased knowledge about women’s writing, and they have opened new possibilities for literary history.
Another important strategy in recovering women writers has been the development of digital textbases devoted to women’s writing. Some early examples include the Women Writers Project; the British Women Romantic Poets Project at UC Davis; subscription-based textbases devoted to women like Perdita Manuscripts,1500-1700, Irish Women Poets of the Romantic Period, and Scottish Women Poets of the Romantic Period; and digital editions centered on or featuring the work of individual woman writers, like the Frankenstein notebooks on the Shelley-Godwin Archive, and the fiction manuscripts of Jane Austen. Julia Flanders, the founder and director of the Women's Writers Project, articulates some of the issues that have confronted their attempts to digitally collect women’s writing:
Back when the project was first envisioned, we thought that we could actually capture all of the extant women’s writing in English before 1830, so representativeness wasn’t so much of a problem. But (I guess we should be glad) that turned out to be wildly wrong—there were orders of magnitude more eligible texts than we had imagined, far more than we’ll ever likely capture before the heat death of the universe at the rate we’re going. Not only, as we have seen, has the recovery of important texts by women been incomplete, but full recovery may be impossible given the scale of what was written, especially during the nineteenth century. (Flanders and Jockers, 2013, 23)
Our project builds upon but also diverges from these seminal projects in important ways. Recognizing that there are “orders of magnitude more eligible texts [by women] than we had imagined,” particularly as we move into the nineteenth-century, we do not attempt to provide full textbases of the works themselves. Nevertheless, we do share their impulse to comprehensiveness of projects like The Women Writers Project and Orlando, even as we acknowledge that, in order to attempt this, we must scale back the data we are seeking to collect. To grasp “the collective system” of women’s engagement with print, we set out to collect robust bibliographical data on each and every book in which a woman had a hand in producing. Our aim is to systematically collect, organize, and analyze the bibliographical data we possess about women’s engagement with print, from large catalogues, like the Eighteenth-Century Short Title Catalogue (ESTC), and more narrowly-conceived print bibliographies (Jackson, 1993; Garside, 2000). The bibliography we have created (and continue to develop) could not be easily printed, and its functionality would be severely impaired if it were presented within a codex.
In addition to this impressive lineage, we are also grateful for the models of women’s book history and scholarship reflected in the following digital projects and resources:
By Michelle Levy, Kandice Sharren, and Brenna Duperron
Flanders, J. and M.L. Jockers. “A Matter of Scale.” Boston Area Days of Digital Humanities Conference, 18 March 2003, Northeastern University, Boston, MA. Keynote Address.