Project Name: Women Writers Project
Project URL: http://www.wwp.northeastern.edu/
Women Writers Online http://wwo.wwp.northeastern.edu/WWO/
Women Writers in Context http://www.wwp.northeastern.edu/context/
Project Team and Affiliation: Permanent Staff: Julia Flanders (Director), Syd Bauman (Senior Programmer/Analyst), and Sarah Connell (Project Manager). WWP also currently employs nine student staff encoders. Its advisory board includes an executive committee (Elizabeth Dillon, Isobel Grundy, Elizabeth Hageman, Marina Leslie, and Melinda Rabb) and a research board (Katherine Singer, Jacqueline Wernimont). The project also acknowledges the contributions of its many alumni: staff, affiliates, students, and advisors. WWP was founded at Brown University but is now a part of the Digital Scholarship Group in the Northeastern University Library.
Reviewed by: Allison Wheatley
Review Date: 9 March 2015
Tags or keywords: Women’s writing, women’s studies, literature, transcription, early modern, Renaissance, education, TEI
Genre: Digital archive, research tool, database, multimedia exhibit, teaching resource
Project Objectives: The Women Writers Project aims to reclaim the importance of pre-Victorian women’s writing by making it accessible to a wide audience and encoding it electronically to preserve the textual data.
Review: The Women Writers Project offers a number of resources for researching and teaching early modern women’s writing and electronic text encoding. WWP’s central resource is a collection of transcribed and encoded full texts available online through Women Writers Online. This database includes 358 texts, which were published between 1526 and 1850 and are mostly rare or inaccessible. The texts belong to a wide variety of genres, including poetry, drama, fiction, and religious, political, philosophical, and scientific writing, and some texts cannot be traditionally categorized. They are encoded using TEI XML, a digital humanities standard. Women Writers Online is the only portion of the Women Writers Project that requires a paid subscription. Institutional prices vary by the university’s size, but individual subscriptions are affordable at $50 per year, or $25 per year for students. WWP regularly makes access to WWO free during March for Women’s History Month. WWO aims to add 15 new texts to the collection annually. If the staff members always post on the blog when they add new texts, then they added 12 texts in 2013 and 8 texts in 2014. WWO also helpfully provides a list of forthcoming titles, which are actively being transcribed, encoded, and prepared for publication.
The WWO interface is, for the most part, simple and user-friendly. There is a “help” page, accessible from the top of the interface, which offers a useful explanation about using WWO. I found the interface to be self-explanatory, and I have a basic knowledge of search engine functions and usage. The interface’s home page includes a search tool with an advanced search option and the ability to narrow results by genre and date. The list of texts, which appears in full before a search is run, is automatically sorted by author but can also be sorted by relevance (once searched), title, or date. A timeline also appears, which can narrow results to a certain date range by selecting an area or to a certain year by clicking on the corresponding dot. Visitors can click on a text’s title in the search results to view the full text in the right-hand pane or in the full browser window. The full text preserves original spelling, page breaks, and font formatting, and describes images. Sections as long as the browser window can be copied and pasted into a word processor, preserving line breaks but not stylistic formatting. Search results for words in the full text produce a list of results grouped by text, and each instance of the word can be clicked on to jump to its appearance in the text. The WWO interfaces makes good use of the available technology by offering full-text search functions and a simple, visual way to narrow search results.
The three-pane format of the interface is very easy to use. Visitors can view their current criteria and edit and narrow their searches on the left, see results in the center, and look, quickly if needed, at the contexts of the results in the full text on the right. Within some of the full texts, clickable red asterisks bring up text boxes with the paragraph headings that were originally printed in the texts. However, the clicks function on some texts (Elizabeth I – The Tilbury speech (Aske’s version), 1588) but not on others (Lanyer, Aemilia (Bassano) – Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611)). Also, line breaks appear to be sometimes incorrectly transcribed. Poems in Lanyer’s text that should be divided into stanzas are not, and there are some additional line breaks on the title page that are not in the EEBO facsimile of the 1611 edition.
The second major resource provided by the Women Writers Project is Women Writers in Context. Unfortunately, links to it are currently buried in the WWP website. They exist in a blog post and on the “projects” page, not on the home page or under a main drop-down tab. WWP states that exhibits combine traditional written argument with images, visualization, and dynamic interaction. Women Writers in Context includes 15 exhibits based on essays written for Renaissance Women Online, a collection of introductory materials for 100 texts that was published on an earlier version of the WWP website. Although WWP invites submissions of exhibits, all are currently reworked from RWO essays published in 1999 or 2000. The essays are not very current, but they do not seem to be outdated. Any exhibit submissions are peer reviewed by the WWP editorial team and an expert reviewer in the field and are citable as publications; no one seems to have successfully submitted an exhibit yet.
All exhibits are organized by topic tags and include at least one picture. Readers sometimes have the option to view the exhibit as a timeline, which shows publications and events relevant to the essay and appears to be made with TimelineJS. When reading the essay portion of the exhibit, visitors will notice gray blocks to the left of the text, which indicate a TEI tagged word, almost exclusively a person, in the line of text. When the block or the word is clicked on, a brief description of the author, literary figure, or historical figure is displayed to the left. Beneath the description are links to other exhibits that mention the person, Wikipedia articles or WorldCat Identities, and, in the case of women writers, a search result for the writer’s name in WWO. Other interactive features include textual notes (indicated by red blocks in the margin), contexts (selections from the writings the essay refers to), and in-text citations that link to the corresponding works cited entries at the bottom of the page.
Like WWO, Women Writers in Context makes good use of available technology. Information about people and events and textual notes are clearly represented in an interactive way. The essays in the exhibits are well-written, and, as the submission guidelines stipulate, accessible to an intelligent audience unfamiliar with the topic. More work could be done here in tagging literary works as well as people; using TEI in these exhibits results in great potential for expanding the available resources. The site’s design is aesthetically pleasing, with large images and interactive features. The cross-referencing with other exhibits on the site, external encyclopedia entries, and Women Writers Online in the notes about people makes this resource especially useful.
The remainder of the Women Writers Project’s resources exist within its main website. The WWO Lab is an experimental area where the project team shares new tools and technologies that may be added to WWO or may remain prototypes. Visitors can view prototype visualizations, sometimes interactive, of dramatic speakers, fictional correspondence networks, and certain features of the WWO corpus (such as date, pages, and places mentioned). These prototypes were created using external tools and are excellent examples of how WWO data can be used. It would be very useful if WWP provided the XML code for its tagged texts and provided instructions for plugging TEI texts into these tools, or if these tools were integrated into WWO.
The main Women Writers Project website also includes pedagogical resources on its “Teaching and Learning” page. The online syllabus collection includes 48 syllabi for courses focusing on early modern women’s writing. They are organized by instructor, institution, and course title and include a course description, assignments, and readings. Many of the syllabi are for courses taught at prestigious universities. The assignments are not fleshed out; they are descriptions rather than detailed instructions. The alphabetical list of readings does not indicate the order in which students read the texts, if selections or full texts were read, or what thematic connections the professor made between them. However, the professor may not be comfortable with offering that information for free online. The website invites syllabi contributions and plans to make the collection searchable.
The suggested assignments section of “Teaching and Learning” currently includes three detailed assignment/project descriptions, which make use of WWO. These seem intended for advanced undergraduate students. They have a specific focus that is not often taught (annotation, modernization, and word history) but seem pedagogically effective for an invested group of students. The “Teaching and Learning” section also includes “Orientations and How-tos,” a section with two articles: “Get started researching a paper” and “Get more out of searching WWO.” The latter introduced the helpful advice that the WWO search does not consider alternate spellings. Users need to include alternate spellings or wildcards in their searches for words that have variant early modern spellings. This information should also have been included in the “help” page linked to from WWO, but was not.
The Women Writers Project is also engaged in a number of programs and projects in addition to curating and creating material for its website. Additional WWP initiatives include offering a curriculum of workshops and seminars in text encoding and digital humanities, holding conferences, colloquia, and symposia, and studying readership and reception history through an NEH Collaborative Research Grant. WWP has even co-sponsored a one-woman show based on the life and writing of Elizabeth I. WWP also offers unpaid internships and consultation on using TEI in digital scholarship. The project is interested in ideas for fundable collaborative projects and in contributions to WWP from scholars outside the project. The website includes a list of publications and presentations about the project and a list of selected publications on women’s writing and history by members and alumni of WWP.
Unfortunately, some descriptions of the WWP website’s content appear to be old, and some links remain broken from the project’s move from Brown to Northeastern in 2013. For example, the link to the “new and forthcoming” section claims that visitors can suggest new texts for inclusion and vote on other people’s suggestions, but I was unable to find this feature anywhere. Information about the Women Writers in Context exhibits states that in addition to the exhibits linking to WWO, WWO links back to the exhibits; I could not find that this was true. Other language is simply outdated. The website indicates that WWP is exploring integrating manuscript-specific reading features (which do not seem to be present yet) into WWO, projected for 2011. The upcoming events section under the “About” tab has not been updated to reflect the upcoming events for 2015 listed on the “Workshops & Seminars” page. However, these imperfections on the main website do not impact the ease of using the valuable resources of Women Writers Online and Women Writers in Context.
The Women Writers Project is a reliable resource worked on by prestigious scholars in the field, overseen by an advisory board, and offered grants by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It is a valuable and user-friendly resource for accessing and searching rare texts by pre-Victorian women writers through WWO, educating the general public about women writers through Women Writers in Context, and teaching students about women writers.
Open Access: The WWP website includes a number of resources for TEI and digital humanities. It makes available for public use the text encoding educational materials used at previous workshops and seminars, all current event materials, WWP training materials, WWP encoding documentation, a guide to scholarly text encoding, and a bundled package that includes basic templates, a customized TEI schema, and a simple CSS stylesheet. However, WWO does not openly offer the XML files for its texts. The file is not in the text source, but I think someone experienced with websites and XML may be able to find the link to it.
Similar Projects: Emory Women Writers Research Project http://womenwriters.library.emory.edu/
Victorian Women Writers Project http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/vwwp/welcome.do
Expertise Required: The Women Writers Project’s website is designed for use by a wide audience. The project describes its audience as teachers, scholars, students, and the general reader. The website seems navigable and useful for high school age and older students as well as for professional researchers and teachers. Students will benefit from the essays in Women Writers in Context, and Women Writers Online is very useful for researchers of all levels. The pedagogical material targets professors who teach undergraduate students.
Other Reviews: Kelly, Erin E. “Online Databases: A Review Essay.” Early Modern Women 4 (2009): 259-63. JSTOR. Web. 9 Mar. 2015.
One of my composition/rhetoric interests is women’s “everyday” writing, like diaries, scrapbooks, social media, fan fiction, etc. The aims of feminist comp/rhet historiography are to recover, preserve, and share women’s texts which might otherwise be lost, and I feel like the WWP has similar goals. Just in browsing, I came across Mary Moody Emerson’s “Almanack,” which is exactly the sort of everyday writing I’m interested in! I’m glad to know about this project because it can provide me with some interesting primary texts for analysis!
Also, I just found the “Vindication of Susanna Parr” who was apparently excommunicated from her church. Being a sister Susanna, I’m especially interested in her allusion to the apocryphal/extra-Biblical book of Susanna. I may have to subscribe 😉