Digitizing women's literary history: The possibility of collaborative empowerment?

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Suzan van Dijk

    Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands (Huygens ING) - Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW)

  2. 2. Ronald Haentjens Dekker

    Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands (Huygens ING) - Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW)

  3. 3. Henriette Partzsch

    University of St. Andrews

  4. 4. Montserrat Prats Lopez

    Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam (Free University)

  5. 5. Amelia Sanz

    Universidad Complutense de Madrid

  6. 6. Gertjan Filarski

    Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands (Huygens ING) - Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW)

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For several years, we have taken initiatives in view of clarifying women’s realparticipation in the European literary field before the early 20th century – as opposed to the relative absence of women in literary histories of the 20th century. We have worked in this large field through a series of successive projects funded on a national as well as a European scale. At present, the HERA project Travelling TexTs 1790-1914. The Transnational Reception of Women’s Writing at the Fringes of Europe (2013-2016) and the CLARIN-NL project Connections Between Women and Writings Within European Borders (COBWWWEB, 2013-2014) provide the context of our presentation. Roughly speaking: the HERA project is about the content, while in the CLARIN project developers are preparing a new structure, allowing the database WomenWriters to connect to other – either structured or editing – projects in the field of women’s literature: for the sake of testing, in the first instance, to the Swedish Selma Lagerlöf Archive, the Norwegian Female Robinsonades and the Serbian Knjizenstvo project; others will follow.

The intended large-scale approach is meant as a complement to ongoing individual digitizing projects, such as the Huygens ING “Digitizing Isabelle de Charrière’s letters” using the eLaborate edition project. Admittedly, “literary women” are benefitting from the new drive to digitize, but we are not yet able to feel the full benefit of these digitized texts. As Jacqueline Wernimont (2013) states, “simply saving women’s work in digital form” is not enough. The women’s texts are often presented in isolation from their historical reception context – which makes it impossible to evaluate their historical importance.

The large-scale and the individual
Referring to Labrosse 1985, we propose to take this reception context as a starting point for a large-scale approach on female authorship from previous, older periods in time. It represents the other end of the communication process in which these women engaged, and it helps us to select authors and texts that should be studied in more detail. When using these reception documents as an “entry” to the texts themselves, the emphasis obviously is on what struck the contemporary reader, in a positive and negative sense: we are thus in the middle of a dialogue.

Putting this data – with the appropriate metadata – in our online database (discussed and tested during an earlier COST financed phase of the collaboration) allows us to roughly situate these authors and works before analyzing them. Giving these women their own place in the virtual representation of the literary field, where communication, circulation and transmission can be made visible, provides context and promotes understanding on a larger scale.

Linking for understanding relevance
It is, indeed, not the sheer presence of these women’s texts on the Internet that advances scholarship. It is the possibility of understanding their relevance – which has often been systematically denied, without reference to empirical data by way of arguments. Understanding relevance cannot be reached by any unprepared reading of the writings. Approaching texts from a “prepared” perspective obviously requires time, but frees these texts from prejudices that are inherent in the late 19th and 20th-century literary historiography of women’s authorship and that – although denounced by Virginia Woolf in A Room of one’s own (1929) – inevitably influences even our post-feminist students.

On the practical level, the connection between the structured database content, on the one hand, and the online edited texts to be studied, on the other, can be made visible by using the same terminology for (1) distinguishing database categories, and (2) annotations in the digitized text in editing platforms such as eLaborate. Linking this data is particularly essential for research in women’s literary history because of the small amount of information available, and therefore the need to compare women authors, postulating that problems encountered by one author are experienced similarly by her colleagues.

Use cases
The objective of this presentation is to highlight the importance of ICT tools used in connection and in complement with each other, for research in domains (not just the one of women’s history) which have fallen behind. We will illustrate this using two examples, representing the two ends of literary communication:

A female sender, the Dutch-Swiss author writing in French Belle van Zuylen/Isabelle de Charrière (1740-1805), and her international (male + female) reception: she has her place in the WomenWriters database, and her letters are being digitized within the eLaborate project;
A male receiver, the Dutch 19th-century literary critic Conrad Busken Huet, who commented upon important numbers of (Dutch and foreign) women authors: he is present in the WomenWriters database, and his critiques are presented (without the possibility of annotation) in the Digital Library of Dutch Literature DBNL.
Briefly describing these two cases we want to illustrate the way in which this collective and transnational research in women’s literary history not only relies on combining several types of ICT tools, connecting different kinds of data (empirical data, “capta”, (references to the) primary and secondary texts), but also requires the participation of different categories of collaborators: not only professional researchers and ICT specialists but also volunteers.

This “mixed” collaboration is needed at a time when computers are still unable to communicate through the use of different languages. As this project collates women authors from all over Europe different tags and categories (denominated in English) are needed to refer to texts and aspects of texts in different languages. This can currently only be done by judgment, by readers who understand which elements of the (narrative) texts are characteristic or a-typical.

Many of the volunteers obviously will be women: the potential readers of both our research output and of the works written by “our” early women authors. They represent, typically, a category of people who will be “empowered” by the access that is given to their foremothers and potential role models….

Administrative obstacles
This complicated interconnection of collaborators may prove to be difficult. However, scholarship in the academy can no longer be fulfilled exclusively by the work of the professoriate. Technological innovations are not just a matter of devices and tools. They concern social practices; they concern users and uses. We can no longer ignore that, next to professionals (researchers, information technologists, librarians, and even students), there are “end users”, who are in fact essential members of our interdisciplinary community; they justify our very activities. It is important – given the precarious position of women in present-day society and the small number of historical role models – to “spread the word” about these early writing activities and the women behind them.

This massive, complex collaboration is not, at present, recognized by institutions and stakeholders; consequently, young and senior researchers, as much as students, are often not ready to invest themselves in this kind of collaborative project. In our presentation, we will also denounce the gaps between digital technologies, the willingness of potential volunteers and the entire educational and academic system, and we will propose some possible strategies.

Bergenmar, J., Olsson, L., (2012). Connecting European Women Writers. The Selma Lagerlöf Archive and Women Writers Database, in Digital Humanities 2012: Conference Abstracts. Hamburg: Hamburg University Press, pp. 113-114. www.dh2012.uni-hamburg.de/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/HamburgUP_dh2012_BoA.pdf

Bergenmar, J., Marzec, L., Sanz, A., (2013). Learning to hack the Literary History – teaching Transnational Women’s Writing Digitally, contribution to final conference of COST Action IS0901 “Women Writers In History”: Female authorship in Europe: Networks and obstacles. The Hague, June 2013. www.womenwriters.nl/index.php/Learning_to_hack_the_Literary_History

Jeay, J., Sinclair, S., (2012). En quête d’amitié. Approches méthodologiques pour l’analyse automatisée d’un corpus électronique, contribution to SATOR conference Topiques de l’amitié, Victoria June 2012. web.uvic.ca/~amitie/index%20resumes.html

Labrosse, C., (1985). Fonctions culturelles du périodique littéraire, in Claude Labrosse, Pierre Rétat, L’instrument périodique, La fonction de la presse au XVIIIe siècle. Lyon: Presses Universitaires de Lyon, pp. 11-136.

Van Dijk, S., (2012). La correspondance d’Isabelle de Charrière en ligne, Cahiers de l’Association Internationale des Etudes Françaises, 64, pp. 29-40. www.womenwriters.nl/images/8/81/2012_SvanDijk_01_lacorrespondance.pdf

Van Dijk, S., (2012). Amitié, solidarité et entraide féminines : Spécificités d’auteurs femmes ?, contribution to SATOR conference Topiques de l’amitié, Victoria June 2012. web.uvic.ca/~amitie/index%20resumes.html

Van Dijk, S., Hoogenboom, H., Sanz, A., Bergenmar, J., Olsson, L., (2012). Data sharing, virtual collaboration, and textual analysis: Working on “Women Writers In History”, in Digital Humanities 2012: Conference Abstracts. Hamburg: Hamburg University Press, pp. 527-529. www.dh2012.uni-hamburg.de/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/HamburgUP_dh2012_BoA.pdf

Van Dijk, S., Prats Lopez, M. (2013). “Participation as a way of creating new audiences ?”, contribution to final conference of COST Action IS0901 “Women Writers In History”: Female authorship in Europe: Networks and obstacles. The Hague, June 2013. www.womenwriters.nl/index.php/Participation_as_a_way_of_creating_new_audiences_%3F

Wernimont, J., (2013). Whence Feminism? Assessing Feminist Interventions in Digital Literary Archives, in Digital Humanities Quarterly 7/1. www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/7/1/000156/000156.html

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

377 works by 898 authors indexed

XML available from https://github.com/elliewix/DHAnalysis (needs to replace plaintext)

Conference website: https://web.archive.org/web/20161227182033/https://dh2014.org/program/

Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO