Authored By: Michelle Levy and Kandice Sharren

Edited By: Brenna Duperron and Sara Penn

Submitted By: 25/11/2020

Citation: Levy, Michelle, and Kandice Sharren. "Digital Bibliography as Feminist Practice." The Women's Print History Project, 25 November 2020,


Our project has been deeply informed by the ideals of feminist scholarship. It focuses on women and their unique contributions to print culture. Its emphasis on bibliographical data presents a new phase in the recovery projects that have been ongoing for the past fifty years, embracing a wider field of literary culture than allowed for even within an expanded canon and deploying the new tools that make this wider field accessible. As D. F. McKenzie has observed, bibliography allows “the resurrection of the most marginal texts and their makers … and thereby the study of all who were kept from the centres of power [which] opens up the possibility of a far more comprehensive reconstruction of cultural history.” This project shares McKenzie’s understanding of bibliography’s potential to resurrect ‘the most marginal texts and their makers’ and towards ‘a far more comprehensive reconstruction of cultural history.’ The aim of expanding our understanding of literary culture is shared by Franco Moretti, who has challenged how we formulate our understandings by (closely) reading only a (statistically) very small selection of what was actually written and circulated. His challenge resonates with the scholarship of book historians of the period, particularly William St. Clair, whose archival work has demonstrated that none of “the big six” male Romantic poets (excepting Byron) enjoyed great popular or critical success during the Romantic period. Distant reading, as a strategy proposed by Moretti and that bibliographical approaches enable, can thus be deployed as a feminizing strategy, in its democratizing impulse to count everything, urging a reconstruction of the literary field that more closely maps what was actually produced and read during the period we study. At the same time, Moretti’s technique of “distant reading” involves what he refers to as a “process of deliberate reduction and abstraction” (2007, 1) that might be thought to run counter to many traditional forms of feminist literary practice, which has typically been invested in the study of individual women, and has been committed to the recovery of individual voices situated within their unique historical and cultural position. However, it is not an either-or situation. We believe that a greater systematic understanding of women’s contributions are necessary to understand the achievements of both individual women and communities of women. Our data is created through engagement with our object of study, women’s books, and it is our expectation that our research will bring about greater interest in the works we describe bibliographically. Our data be read closely and attentively, revealing patterns in women’s involvement in print that would be impossible to discern on a case-by-case basis. At the same time, our spotlights allow us to dive into individual titles, persons and firms providing an opportunity for in-depth analysis of our records. Beyond our analysis, our hope is to stimulate interest in and new research on women and their books, and to lead people back to biographical sources like Orlando and full-text databases to engage with women’s lives and writing directly in new projects. We thus wholeheartedly endorse the mission statement of the editors, Cait Coker and Kate Ozment, of the Women in Book History Bibliography: "We believe that collecting data, making this work “count,” is a feminist act that preserves our past and shapes our future." 

A bibliographical recovery project like WPHP must be cautious in its claims to comprehensiveness. Nevertheless, realizing that it will never be possible (or even desirable) to read all or even a good part of what women wrote during the period, we can begin to assess and understand their contributions through bibliography, which enables a fuller sense of the range of the women who wrote, the books that they wrote, and the other ways, from translation to bookselling, that they were involved in literary production. One measure of the success of our approach has been the sheer number of women we have uncovered. To date, the database includes well over 3,000 women, a number that bears comparison to the 1,325 entries in Orlando, a project that covers all women (and some men) writers, “from the Beginnings to the Present.” Clearly there are many women that have not been recovered by the most comprehensive biographical collection of women’s literary history we possess. By seeking to restore to view the wide diversity of women who participated in print culture, we throw into relief the narrow canon of female authors currently investigated by most scholars and taught in most classrooms. Our attempt to include all books published with female involvement also means that we transcend canonical literary genres, considering not only novels, drama, and poetry, but educational, religious, popular print and scientific materials; and we also attempt to move beyond a focus on traditional book forms, like the triple-decker novel, to include pamphlets, chapbooks and even broadsides.

The WPHP is less diverse bibliographically and geographically than we would like, but practical limits were necessary. It omits the enormous contributions women made to periodicals and newspapers, and also manuscript writing. It is also currently confined to publications originating in the United Kingdom, and Ireland, though we are (as of late 2020) beginning the process of expanding our data to publications in the United States, with French publications to follow. By including provincial, Scottish, Irish, and, eventually, American and French, imprints, we hope to enable a robust account of a national book culture, and generate a consideration of geographical variations in female participation in the book trades in particular. We accept the limits on bibliodiversity that we have, of necessity, imposed. Nevertheless, we must start somewhere.

Our project would be unthinkable without digital technology, as it provides access to a diverse range of bibliographical material; as it allows us to collect and organize our bibliographical data; and as allows us to work as a team. Digital Humanities has theorized the ways in which project work can foster feminist ideals and participate in a wider discussion about inclusivity and diversity within the academy (Bailey, 2011; Bianco, 2012; McPherson, 2012; Wernimont, 2013). According to Jacqueline Wernimont, what lies at “the heart of feminist commitments” are critical practices that allow us to see “knowledge production as material, embodied, affective, situated, and labor” (Wernimont, 2015). One of the key ways in which we theorize diversity in our project is in regards to collaboration. Ours is a deeply collaborative project, in multiple senses. First, we are interested in better understanding the history of the book as a collaborative process. WPHP is also collaborative in a second sense, in that we have partnered with existing projects and archives that have generously supplied us with their data (see Acknowledgements). Finally, this is a collaborative project, in the sense that we work together as part of a large team—of programmers and librarians, academic collaborators and student researchers (see Team).

This project (like many if not most DH projects) has depended upon student labour. Twenty students have worked on this project since its inception in 2015. They have come from every level of academic study, from early to advanced undergraduates, and from MAs to PhDs. Although we have attempted to introduce a team-based approach, this project began with the recognition that hierarchies exist and that “the rhetoric of DH — of collaboration, accessibility, and freedom from traditional hierarchy — can obscure those structures that are already in place within [the academic] community” (Anderson et al, 2016, para.8). We have worked hard to ensure that our collaboration is meaningful, by encouraging students who have been with the project over several semesters to develop expertise in areas of interest, by enabling them to present research on their areas of expertise, and by empowering them “to have a sense of ownership and agency” over the project more generally (Anderson et al, 2016, para. 29).

There is also an affective model at work in the project, which arises from a practice of mentoring students. Most of the students on the project were known to the project director previously, usually through coursework or supervision. The project has been structured to allow students who have been working on the project longer to mentor newer students, which both fosters a sense of community and provides students who are more advanced in their academic studies, or have been involved in the project for a longer period of time, or both, with the opportunity to develop leadership and project management skills. We encourage students to work together, to share knowledge, and to treat the project as their own: students have been named as collaborators on published scholarship and participated actively in the decisions that define the procedures and shape of the project as it grows.


Works Cited

Anderson, K., Bannister, L., Dodd, J., Fong, D., Levy, M. and L. Seatter. “Student Labour and Training in Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 1, 2016. 

Bailey, Moya Z. “All the Digital Humanists Are White, All the Nerds Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave.” Journal of Digital Humanities, vol. 1,

Bianco, Jamie. “This Digital Humanities Which is Not One.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

McKenzie, D. F. “History of the Book.” The Book Encompassed: Studies in Twentieth-Century Bibliography. Edited by Peter Hobley Davison. Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 290-301.

McPherson, Tara. “Why is the Digital Humanities So White?, or, Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Edited by Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2012, pp. 138–60. 

Moretti, Franco. Distant Reading. London, Verso, 2013.

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. New York, Verso, 2007.

St. Clair, William. The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Wernimont, Jacqueline. “Introduction to Feminisms and DH Special Issue.” Digital Humanities Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 2, 2015.

Wernimont, Jacqueline. “Whence Feminism? Assessing Feminist Interventions in Digital Literary Archives.” Digital Humanities Quarterly, vol. 7, no. 1, 2013.