"Issues in Scholarly Analysis: Assisting the User and Reshaping the Canon"

  1. 1. Miranda Beaven Remnek

    University of Minnesota

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The proliferation of women's studies digitization projects is contributing to the availability of sources on women on a scale unimaginable until recently. This is a significant development from the point of view of scholarship. On the one hand it assures that increasing numbers of researchers will find the resources they need to pursue their interests. On the other, it promises to correct the rampant marginalization of the female presence in many disciplines, and to contribute to a reevaluation and expansion of the literary canon. However, these developments are not without their challenges.
Section A.
Where users are concerned, the increased availability assured by the proliferation of projects suggests not only an increased number of users but also an expansion in the number f uses to which these texts will be put. An increase in the user population is clearly inevitable, because promotional efforts by each of these projects are bound to raise awareness with regard to the benefits of converting women's sources to digital form.And as the user population increases, more attention must be paid to its multiplying needs.
In attempting to map these new usage patterns--and others envisaged but not yet empowered-- it is as well to step back to reexamine the motives underlying digital projects in general:
1. Such projects are surely first and foremost a means of making widely available texts that are available in small quantities and/or largely inaccessible . Whether the reasons for their marginal status are technical or political, in many respects their foregrounding as a result of new technologies falls squarely within the realm of "preservation and access."
2. But a second and equally important motive, in my view, is that of education. Despite what one hears, surprisingly many scholars and students are still unaware of or unconcerned with the potential of computer-aided analysis. And in order to interest as many of these uninformed users as possible, it seems to me that the drive towards digitization should not only involve materials that are out of print or otherwise inaccessible. Digitization projects should also consider mainstream materials that may not be hard to obtain in other formats, but which in non-digitized form are unable to yield the kinds of results made possible by full-text retrieval from documents encoded with metadata.
Given these two goals, each project will need to explore with greater determination the uses to which its texts are put. In doing so, it may help to categorize the user population according to levels of expertise, and examine how well each level is served. In approaching this problem I propose a three-tiered grouping of technologically-uninformed,computer-literate, and "digi-literate" users:
a)Technologically-Uninformed Users. Despite what some would have us believe, many potential users who are active in the women's studies field have yet to appreciate the opportunities offered by work with electronic formats. A high proportion of this group is likely to involve established scholars. In cases like these--where use of digital resources is lacking by scholars heavily committed to women's studies--projects will need to explore options for increased training. Education efforts with this group probably need to take place on the campus level. This paper will outline several possibilities.
b)Computer-Literate Users. It is likely that as publicity increases, those accessing digital resources will include users who are already fairly computer-literate, but who are unfamiliar with text encoding practices and opportunities. This group is likely to contain a high percentage of younger students. Again, education opportunities for this group probably need to be developed with the campus community in mind. This paper will propose some approaches to working with this user group.
c)"Digi-literate" Users. In discussing the demands presented by scholars and students who already have some experience of the benefits of working with electronic texts I'd like to coin the term "digi-literate." "Digi-literate" users are inevitably computer-literate to some extent, but they are also somewhat familiar with SGML, have worked with other SGML-encoded files, and have some expectations of text corpora. This group will come to women's studies texts with demands and requirements that may or may not be met, and projects will need to investigate the extent to which encoding practices facilitate or hamper research methodologies. Since this is likely to involve a relatively small group, efforts probably need to focus beyond the local level. This paper will discuss strategies to adopt in dealing with this user group.
Section B.
In its turn, expanded use of digitized resources in the field of women's studies also has implications for revisionist scholarship in regard to the literary canon. Here again there are challenges. On a general level, cooperation requirements for women's studies projects extend beyond providing unique or complementary new resources to the field, and promoting interoperability; projects will also need to cooperate in supporting academic initiatives by means of conferences and other types of information exchange, in order to help substantiate new scholarly interpretations. This paper will deal with some of these general issues in greater depth. The paper will also draw on specific examples drawn from ongoing projects at the University of Minnesota, in order to demonstrate ways in which the conversion of texts and data to electronic form is assisting or has already assisted individual research projects in their reevaluation of a given literary canon. Described below in ascending order of completion are threeprojects and their impact on reshaping the canons they represent:
a) Women's Travel Writing, 1830-1930
One of two components of Minnesota's new Women's Studies Digitization Project, our Women's Travel Writing Project (begun in Sept. 1997) aims to draw on our rich collection of travel accounts to promote further research in travel writing. This is a field that is developing on many fronts, as exemplified by a recent Travel Writing Conference held this month (Nov. 1997) at the University of Minnesota. And, given its appeal to scholars from various disciplines, it presents a wonderful opportunity for promoting e-text possibilities in the context of contemporary demands for cross-disciplinary study. Several humanities faculty are involved in our project. One French professor intends to integrate student participation in the project as a requirement of her new course on US-French travel in the 19th century; her course will include male travellers, but she is keen to give due recognition to the female perspective. Several other professors in the depts. of History, Anthropology and Women's Studies are working on aspects of travel by American or British women to the non-Western world (Africa, India, and Latin America). My paper will report on ways in which our digitization project is assisting research in these areas, and specifically on the cumulative contribution of these efforts towards highlighting the significance and particular contributions of the woman traveller.
b) Early Modern French Women Writers
A second component of Minnesota's Women's Studies Digitization Project, this project--which aims to digitize French women's writing from the 15-17th centuries--also began in Sept. 1997. We are conducting this project in cooperation with Chicago's ARTFL project, following up on ARTFL's own conviction that its database is largely canonical and does not include sufficient coverage of women writers. Our project aims to subvert the canon in two respects. First, the very act of making available selected female texts from the early modern period will help to alter awareness with regard to the literary pool. Our second goal is more emphatic. For example, two graduate students belong to our steering committee; one is working on the 16th century, the other on the 17th. Each is using digitized texts by her chosen writer to expand analysis and interpretation possibilities; in each case the eventual goal is to adjust the canon by demonstrating in more convincing ways the extent of each writer's literary achievement. This paper will report on the progress of these initiatives.
c) Early 19th Century Russian Women Readers
Based on my own research, this study is of longer duration than those discussed above, and its results are about to be published by Duke University Press in a collection entitled Women & Journalism in Late Imperial Russia. My work on early 19th Russian women was conducted as part of a larger project to examine the expansion of reading audiences in Nicholaevan Russia (1825-1855), and as a result, to reevaluate the cultural dimensions of the Nicholaevan canon-if not its narrower literary strain. Primary sources digitized for this project are now part of the recently formed Minnesota Russian Text Archive. They include a) a pool of 22 subscription lists to a variety of Russian imprints, 1825-1846. Now digitized in a 12,000-record database compiled using DataEase relational database software, the subscription data allowed me to draw comparisons based on social level and geographic provenance. b) supporting primary texts on reading habits (fiction, memoirs and periodical articles), digitized-often in the form of translations--using INSO Corporation's SGML-based DynaText/DynaWeb software. The software allowed me to detect and highlight similar patterns in different sources. Enrichment of these sources is still proceeding.
Using specific examples, my paper will describe how manipulation of the subscription records and supporting texts allowed me to construct a convincing image of the dimensions and characteristics of the female reading public in those years (a public more than usually marginalized because of the patriarchal character of Nicholaevan society). Peer reviews of the collected volume have described it as likely to be one of the more significant works in Slavic studies in recent years. In the case of my contribution at least, digitization helped--by making it possible to incorporate convincing quantitative data, and by making it easy to assemble related textual evidence on female reading patterns. Without this assistance, it would have been harder to substantiate the iconoclastic view that Nicholaevan Russia did in fact contain an active female reading audience.

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Conference Info

In review

"Virtual Communities"

Hosted at Debreceni Egyetem (University of Debrecen) (Lajos Kossuth University)

Debrecen, Hungary

July 5, 1998 - July 10, 1998

109 works by 129 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ALLC (10), ACH/ICCH (18), ALLC/EADH (25)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC