New Approaches to Women’s Writing Virtual Research Environment

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Laura Kirkley

    Newcastle University

  2. 2. Tiago Sousa Garcia

    Newcastle University

  3. 3. James Cummings

    Newcastle University

  4. 4. Mark Turner

    Newcastle University

Work text
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The New Approaches to Women’s Writing (NEWW) Network brings together scholars from across the globe to research women writers’ transnational collaborations and reception histories from the early modern era to the twentieth century. The aim is not only to recuperate national histories of women’s writing but also to establish how feminist ideas were disseminated as texts crossed national and linguistic borders. This short paper seeks to introduce the NEWW network and its pilot virtual research environment as it seeks to develop this further.
In part the creation of this VRE is born out of frustration with more traditional forms of the conference paper and article which tend to lend themselves to single-author case studies. These research outputs often point towards broader patterns of transnational networking and influence, but corroborating and interpreting these patterns demands an overview of the significant amount of data now stored in the VRE. We have therefore created a number of outputs in an effort to visualise the reception trajectories of key feminist writers’ texts as they crossed national borders, often appearing in translation in other countries.
The NEWW VRE was created to answer some of these questions, originally as a standalone database, later it was adopted as part of an overarching internally-funded project at Newcastle University called ATNU (Animating Text Newcastle University – This project has initiated a number of digital humanities projects looking at text in various forms, and this was an important early pilot to map the appearance of translations of feminist literature called “Mapping translations of feminist literature in Europe 1750-1930”. This was initially developed with ATNU using fairly simple methodologies and then later as a full pilot expanded in order to identify the mechanisms and contexts for the transnational development of feminism before the so-called First Wave.

The technological implementation has since been significantly expanded through the use of custom maps built on top of a D3 visualisation library. This allowed for the use of vector images detailing the changing borders of Europe to be used instead of the modern borders available via Google Maps. The initial interface was replaced by a full relational database to support more advanced queries and store more metadata, particularly around the evidence sources.
The pilot project selected key early modern feminist writers and plotted their reception data on a European map. The data is categorised by reception type and includes: translations; adaptations; reviews and articles; evidence of reading; and texts where demonstrable influence has been established. This data can be visualised either as distinct markers on the map or as a ‘heat map’, whereby the densest clusters of reception data appear in a range of colours depending on the amount of data attached to them. ‘Hot spots’ highlight areas of particular interest and the connections between the different texts. The map also has a timeline which allows the user to ‘travel’ through time and view the developing reception of a given text or writer. The map is dynamic, changing with the date on the timeline so that the user sees the national borders in Europe shift over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This is important because the significance of particular ‘clusters’ of reception data may be illuminated by political and cultural connections between nations would not be readily apparent on a modern map.
Given the relatively small size of the testing dataset, any conclusions drawn from the distribution of results are naturally skewed. In selecting the test dataset, however, questions about the criteria for inclusion in the complete resource have surfaced: what constitutes feminist writing, how to compensate for spotty data in the sources, and how to weigh the different types of reception to more accurately represent the spread of early feminist ideas -- these aspects will be refined and expanded in the course of the larger project which will follow.
In addition to introducing the NEWW network and its pilot project this short paper will discuss a number of issues more directly of interest to a DH2019 audience. These include the problems of mapping with historical datasets: although we wanted to provide digital maps, the dataset is historical so merely plotting these points on a modern Google Map would be obviously misleading. Sourcing historical maps in a useful form in itself is a problem – since the date range covers some of the most turbulent years in European history, it has constant border changes throughout the time period of the data. The provision of historic open-source borders in a useful format proved difficult but eventually a series of over twenty maps of Europe after major border changes were sourced from the Leibniz Institute of European History, provided by Andreas Kunz ( Each map contained a number of artefacts not relevant to this project, so each was edited using Adobe Illustrator to resize and remove unneeded sections before saving into SVG. The NEWW project also faced additional difficulties, for example, in the categorisation of evidence types into a hierarchy that members of the network could agree upon. For example, a translation was judged to be a more significant reception text than a brief mention in a letter. Moreover, evidence for the existence of translations comes from a number of different sources. Each source type needs to be ranked against all other types to build up a score that represents how certain the members of the network are that any given translation existed at that time and place. As much of the data is fragmentary or has degrees of uncertainty, there were a number of issues with the visualization of this uncertainty.

This short paper will introduce the network, the ATNU pilot project that led to the revamped NEWW VRE, and the resulting website itself. It will look for feedback and seek to open dialogue among DH scholars working on related topics, not only on feminist writers but those encountering similar challenges on the technical development of historical datasets.

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Conference Info

In review

ADHO - 2019

Hosted at Utrecht University

Utrecht, Netherlands

July 9, 2019 - July 12, 2019

436 works by 1162 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (14)

Organizers: ADHO