Orlando: Women's Writing

Scholarly Introduction

Going Electronic

The Orlando Project grew out of the The Feminist Companion to Literature in English, the first reference work on women's writing in several traditions. Bibliographic Citation link. That book published much new research on women writers and made its editors aware that it would soon be time to attempt a history. But it was 1,231 pages in double-column format, and there was no room in a single volume for more than a minimal index. Much of its information, therefore, was locked away from all but those readers who were prepared to chase it in a reading from A to Z.
In considering how to approach a feminist literary history, the editors of what became Orlando decided to explore the potential of digital media. Some of the advantages were immediately apparent: it would be spacious enough for all of the research, all of its material could be instantly accessible, and it could be altered and expanded as necessary after publication. Other exciting advantages became apparent as the project developed. Devising a customized markup language allowed the history's underlying principles and priorities to be embodied in the textbase, providing new ways to access the interpretive as well as the relatively factual material of which the history is composed (see Markup in Orlando). And creating a new structure for a literary history has produced a resource able to respond effectively to some of the challenges facing conventional narrative history (see The Challenge of Literary History).
Going electronic has enabled us to produce a far more extensive resource than we could have done in print. As it reached the web, Orlando was the equivalent of more than fifty volumes of readable text, at the length generally taken by volumes of literary history; it has grown by nearly half as much again since them. It has also made possible a new, reader-centred model of literary history. Orlando does not present a single, linear story: it is formed of thousands of multiply linked and dynamic portions of text which can be navigated, retrieved, and reordered in myriad ways. The ability to manipulate and combine these short portions of documents makes Orlando more flexible than systems that retrieve entire entries, documents, or other relatively independent units of text, or even than those which, like many standard reference works today, retrieve excerpts of such entries based on word searches. And because it is a critical work written within a customized markup system, Orlando takes digital humanities work, and large-scale text markup in particular, in a new direction.
Orlando is collaboratively produced. It offers a range of voices, discursive strategies, critical approaches, and theoretical emphases. Entries were composed, often by more than one project member, with careful attention to tracing and acknowledging sources, then checked for accuracy and clarity, reviewed by an editor, revised as necessary, and run through a number of checks for tag usage. Given the difficulty of distinguishing scholarly from unscholarly material on the internet and the need to establish the academic credibility of electronic publishing, we join Ray Siemens and undertakings such as the NINES (Networked Interface for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship) project in believing that scholarly standards and peer review are crucial to building a critical mass of reliable electronic sources.  Bibliographic Citation link.
This inclusive feminist literary history employs narrative as a still powerful and relevant tool for representing relationships, causalities, and developments, but these narratives are multiple, parallel, and fractured rather than continuous and singular. The rhizomatic electronic form of the text allows these elements, and excerpts from them, to be in effect mobile within the delivery system. No structural centrality is accorded canonical authors. Each author is the subject of her own entry, but Orlando's markup system intertwines the details of lives and works within a larger conceptual, date-sensitive web of relations and interlinkages. That web presents multiple literary histories that emerge from the complex interrelationships between writers and the varied influences upon them of their social, political, material, and literary contexts.
Thus, while Orlando resembles a standard alphabetical reference work in electronic form, its structured text means that its material is systematically interrelated and can be probed, traversed, and grouped in sophisticated ways. It foregrounds myriad links among authors, their historical moments, their pasts and their futures. Using a combination of text markup and databasing, Orlando reshuffles and sorts its prose into excerpts, always offering the option to read an excerpt in its original context. The dynamic system of text retrieval provides on-the-fly results catering both to directed inquiries from specialists and to general exploratory browsing. It invites engaging with literary history in sundry ways, for example through periods, genres, locales, or themes.

Markup

Orlando's approach to humanities computing provides one answer to the question of how computing can assist in the creation and use of a literary history. Its technologies were developed in the context of on-going literary research. Its markup or tagging system structures a body of knowledge which is characteristically interpretive and evaluative. Although literary history is heavily dependent on quantifiable and factual statements, it is most interested in the unquantifiable. Biographical accounts of authors consist not only of birth, death and publication dates, but also of information (and sometimes speculation) about such matters as political allegiances, religious beliefs, race, class, and sexuality. Critical or expository accounts of texts depend on complex as well as relatively simple concepts, and the application or interpretation of the former may differ sharply among different critics or groups. Orlando's tagsets represent and make searchable both relatively straightforward and highly interpreted information. It is possible to search such fairly simple concepts as Anthologization, Contract, Copyright, or Earnings, and also ones, such as Motifs, Techniques, or Narrative Voice, on which the views of its readers, like those of its subjects, are bound to be various.
Orlando began at a moment when some, like Rosanne G. Potter, were complaining that those working at computer analysis of texts, more and more absorbed in scientific methods, had "forgotten they were seeking information about literature" and that such endeavours needed to pursued in dialogue with "the kind of analysis that only the unaided human mind can apply." Bibliographic Citation link. Humanities computing is haunted by information-processing. Pressure towards 'precision' in tag 'meanings' and applications creates the risk of undermining the ability of traditional literary scholarship to handle the multivalent, ambiguous, and unclassifiable. What are needed, according to many digital humanists, are more sophisticated ways of dealing with text electronically. Bibliographic Citation link. This is a vast field of inquiry that invites many different approaches. Given the divergent methods of literary history, no single system will serve every need, nor be sufficiently uncontroversial to be both definitive and interesting.
Orlando has sought to produce a system of electronic text markup that is both extensive and sufficiently wide-ranging to address material from several centuries and the entire range of literary genres. It aims to represent a literary history grounded in the texts and contexts studied, offering as part of its representational structure a flexible set of interpretive rubrics that avoids the liabilities associated with rigid taxonomies, and making its readers active partners in its literary historical endeavours.
Orlando was built using SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language), a 'metalanguage' used to demarcate text in documents according to consistent principles in such a way that they can be processed by computers. Orlando's tagging language, designed to encode the literary history of women, is composed of some tags common to other projects together with many new tags, unique here. It includes 205 tags, 114 attributes, and 635 attribute values.
The project chose SGML because it (like its successor, XML) was an international standard, because it could run on various programmes and was therefore unlikely to become obsolete, and because it was emerging (to become established) as the standard tool for archive-quality encoding of scholarly texts in the humanities. The Text Encoding Initiative has established a set of standard protocols for the editing of primary texts. Orlando's aim to encode critical materials with subject-specific markup (rather than the formal features and variants of existing primary texts) meant that it made sense to depart from the TEI standard as it existed when the project was specifying its tagset. But Orlando has departed from the TEI only when it is necessary to give added, subject-specific value to the tagging scheme. Its retention of key TEI tags provides the potential for interlinkages between Orlando and other bodies of SGML- or XML-encoded texts, such as the pioneering Women Writers Online.  Bibliographic Citation link. While Orlando was underway, XML or Extensible Markup Language, a streamlined and simplified version of SGML, emerged: it facilitated delivery of the textbase via the World Wide Web.

Markup in Orlando

[See What is Markup For? for the basics of tagging: for what tags—and the attributes which modify some tags—look like and an overview of their purposes. Note also that a click on the Show Markup button in the textbase (top right on screens for entries and search results) reveals tagging in individual passages.]
Textual encoding provides the textbase materials with a consistent intellectual structure without compromising readability and without fixing text in a linear sequence. It opens the material to multiple uses beyond simple reading: to detailed searching and on-the-fly restructuring. In effect, encoding resides beneath the visible surface of texts, giving them the power of a database and the reading experience of regular prose. Orlando's encoding allows the extraction and ordering, from among thousands of documents, of material with which to create chronologies. It enables the grouping of all writers who lived in or travelled to the same places, who wrote in the same genres, or who responded to the same texts. This structuring of text enables the investigation of interrelationships. It supplements a traditional emphasis on the single writer with several possible views of a writer operating in relation with others, either contemporary or across generations. It supports a view of literary production as resulting from the circulation of words and ideas.
The encoding embeds in our text explicit representations of the formal and conceptual structures and priorities governing Orlando. The formal markup works by providing a structure from which a stylesheet then renders the text in a web browser. The conceptual markup embodies literary-historical priorities and provides a rubric of the features in lives and texts that are attended to in this history: these tags, specific to Orlando, provide a common structure for the entries on writers. Discussions of lives, for instance, almost invariably employ Birth, Cultural Formation, Family, Education, Location, and Death tags, and may, as required by the individual life, employ tags for Health, Politics, Occupation, or Violence (covering the range of violence from spousal abuse to war). Discussions of writing almost invariably employ tags for Production, Textual features, Genre, and Theme or Topic , and may, as required by the individual oeuvre, employ tags for Reception, Influence, Intertextuality, Relations with publisher, and so on. These tags provide a basis for grouping writers or excerpts from their entries together on the basis of the tags in their entries, and for performing precise searches across the textbase.
Electronic text in any form is itself a mode of representation; its tagging works in dialogue with the 'readable' text, to open new ways of both writing and reading literary history. Electronic text markup as it is used by the Web (HTML or Hypertext Markup Language) is rudimentary: it instructs web browsers on text display according to markup (italicized, indented, laid out in a table) or on linkage to other web materials. But in digital humanities work, SGML/XML has purposes beyond display. It sets out to describe the character of the text itself. So, for instance, instead of marking up a periodical title with a tag indicating that the title should appear in italic, Orlando markup designates it as a journal title. This practice of describing the nature of the text rather than instructing how to render it follows markup principles established in the Text Encoding Initiative and elsewhere. It enables systems to be designed to represent journal titles in various ways—with italics, underlining, or hyperlinking, and so on. The representational act of describing the piece of text is separate from the representational act of encoding to produce format. This may seem trivial as applied to titles, but it is easy to perceive the utility of a computer system being able to distinguish between 'London' as a place and 'London' as a word in a title or an organization name. Markup, or knowledge representation, insofar as it involves applying logic, or a set of rules, to a system of ontology in order to represent a knowledge domain, largely constrains what a computer can do with a text and what conclusions can be drawn from the way the markup is applied. Bibliographic Citation link. This kind of markup thus has far-reaching implications and more flexible and powerful applications than format-oriented markup.
Text markup is thus an interpretive activity: it creates meaning and it licenses various inferences about the text. Bibliographic Citation link. The semantic or conceptual markup used here constitutes a particular approach to literary history. Like all history, Orlando has had to select, frame, and organize its materials according to certain priorities, many of which it has embedded in the tagset. It is finally the fundamentally interpretive quality of the tagset that makes Orlando a history with a difference.
This tagging has been an experiment in using computers to undertake primarily qualitative rather than quantitative work. As a result, not all readers will agree with all of the tagging judgments in the Orlando textbase. For instance, the tag for Responses carries an attribute 'ad feminam' for personalized reactions to a writer or her works; use of this attribute requires the tagger to make a critical judgement: the history of the reception of texts is rich in violent and long-lasting disagreements over this very issue. Orlando creates patterns and groupings emerging from the categorizations and judgments that are intrinsic to literary historical analysis, but given the selective nature of historical evidence and historical reporting, we do not present the textbase as a statistically representative sample of the field of women's writing. (A number of scholars have pursued quantitative work in literary historical studies, including Gaye Tuchman with Nina Fortin, in Edging Women Out, 1989, and Simon Eliot in Some Trends and Patterns in British Publishing, 1994. Bibliographic Citation link. Franco Moretti has offered in Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, 2005, some provocative approaches to literary history—which he calls "a process of deliberate reduction and abstraction"—in which quantitative analysis, mapping, and evolutionary models produce "specific form[s] of knowledge" that allow interconnections between texts to emerge more clearly.)  Bibliographic Citation link.

Interpretation and Markup

The question posed in the application of markup to text is what—and what not—to tag. The answer to that question is what embodies values, priorities, and hypotheses in the tagging.
The Orlando tagset is designed to identify elements of writers' lives and writing that are important to an understanding of women's literary history: it attempts to map the diverse and changing literary conditions under which women's writing has been shaped and received. Many of its tags are markedly different from those associated with the tagging of primary text editions or a linguistic corpus.
The act of encoding often involves choosing between two or more applicable tags. When Florence Nightingale's entry mentions that her "father had no male heir, so her cousin William Shore Smith acquired the family estate. He increased her income to £2,000 annually," this material seems to invite use of several tags which are structurally incompatible: a Wealth tag, or a Family Member tag with an attribute for the father, or another for the cousin. Choice of the Wealth tag (and the decision not to lengthen or break up the discussion by using more than one conceptual tag) indicates that the tagger considered the increase in income and the historical pattern of excluding women from inheritance most pertinent to a history of women's writing. This example brings home the extent to which tagging is inescapably interpretive and partial. (These issues are explored more fully in relation to the Orlando Project in "Can a Team Tag Consistently" and "Intertextual Encoding in the Writing of Women's Literary History".) Bibliographic Citation link. Like any historical enterprise, Orlando is selective, produced according to the priorities of the historians. It has the advantage, however, that many of the overall priorities are legible in the tagset itself, and the results of particular decisions made are legible in the particulars of the markup.

Linking

The questions of what to hyperlink, by what criteria, and where to target the link, comprise another set of hard decisions for an electronic interface. Orlando consistently provides internal links using four 'core' tags: people's Names, the Titles of texts, Place names, and names of Organizations. Whenever entries in the textbase contain more than a single tagged instance of one of these, it will be hyperlinked. Rather than making the link point to a single spot in the textbase, Orlando leverages its encoding system to offer readers informed choices about which links to follow. Links screens (available also as part of author entries) provide links to all entries mentioning that person, text, place, or organization, with associated screens for viewing the relevant excerpts and timeline. The Links screen provides a perspective on authors produced from beyond their own particular entries: these links reflect the dialogue among the narratives and critical histories of various writers. The underlying tagging architecture allows a reader to choose which context(s) to pursue. These contexts (defined by specific tags or by groups of tags) offer a choice of directions for exploration.
A selective number of external links are provided to texts online, hopefully with sufficient conservatism to avoid the frustration produced by 'stale' links or blocked access to licensed sites, not to mention inaccuracies in non-scholarly online editions.

Citation and Bibliography

It is not usual for large-scale printed historical and reference works to provide detailed or specific citation: some omit references altogether for want of space. Orlando exploits the capaciousness of electronic text by providing about 25,000 bibliographical entries, including full citation of the sources used in writing entries and chronological material. This means that a researcher can pick up where the textbase leaves off, without needing to reproduce the research trail. Orlando does not, however, cite itself when a fact is substantiated elsewhere in the textbase. Selective quotation has been used to give some flavour of texts used, and point students and scholars towards the writings of authors discussed.
Like all historical work, Orlando relies on the community of scholars—biographers, critics, and textual editors—that continues to expand our knowledge of writing and its relation to historical processes. As its extensive system of citation demonstrates, Orlando aims to point to rather than replace the work of other scholars. We do not, however, provide full bibliographies either of primary or secondary work. In the case of writers who have attracted much attention, valuable scholarship may remain unmentioned.

Chronology

The Orlando chronology comprises more than 30,000 events or statements attached to a date or date span. This provides a dynamic framework offering a temporally ordered perspective on much of the material that is susceptible to being seen in this way. Some of its timebites come from entries on writers and their texts. Others, dealing with material and cultural contexts, are free-standing. In a sense none is complete in itself, since all are designed to be read in the sequence produced by a particular search. Even the timelines in writers' entries are not drawn exclusively from within those entries, but from all events within the textbase that mention the writer concerned.
The dynamic nature of Orlando chronologies means that one event appears in timelines on Paris and on Mary Wollstonecraft and on the French Revolution; another in timelines on Cicely Hamilton and on women's suffrage and on the Scala Theatre, London. And a click takes you from the Paris timeline to the Wollstonecraft entry, or from the suffrage timeline to the Hamilton entry.
Chronologies can be produced by searching without content (on a given week or year) or by scope without content (on a given year in national and international event types only, or in social climate only, or at the most selective level only), or by text-only searches on words, or on words combined by Boolean logic; or by searching on the contents of Orlando's core hyperlinking tags (name, place, title or genre of text, or organization name); or by searching on those tags without content (though many such searches will produce unmanageably large results if not limited in other ways).
Tag searches sometimes produce a separate screen of Events, depending on where the tags searched are positioned in the tagging hierarchy. Tag searches can thus create highly selective, partial, chronologies using some of the more specific tags in the tagset: for instance political allegiances of authors, gendered responses to texts, rejections by publishers, or the serial publication of texts. In each case the timeline will be a selection from a larger set of results that includes statements not tied to a particular date. (On how the chronology is designed to "hybridize chronology with critical investigation" see "Dates and Chronstructs: Dynamic Chronology on the Orlando Project".) Bibliographic Citation link.
[For more information on using the chronology see Entry points: Chronologies.]

Gathering through tags

While Orlando's core tags allow the system to bring together via hyperlinks related Names, Titles, Places and Organizations, its conceptual tagging provides for the gathering and contextualized searching of particular aspects of writers' lives and writing.
Orlando can gather together all of its writers who were midwives or governesses, or who wrote science fiction or acrostics, or who were born in Scarborough, or who were in any way associated with that town. For these categories of Occupation, Genre, or Place the People entry point offers an immediate search resulting in a list of names. But these are only a fraction of the kinds of linkages created by the hundreds of tags and associated values that comprise the conceptual tagsets.
Through the Tag Search entry point a user can bring together—and can, if so desired, limit by date and other criteria—materials associated with a vast range of subjects: from writers as self-taught or as eldest in their families to experience of violence in their lives, or their relationships with publishers, or censorship of their work, or their connections with particular organizations, such as the Whigs or PEN. The tag search interface offers a highly flexible, user-directed means of grouping the literary historical materials in Orlando according to specific interests. Time invested in becoming familiar with the major tags (beginning through the Tag Diagrams and referring if desired to About the Tags) pays dividends by returning greatly expanded approaches to the textbase.
In offering multiple search strategies, Orlando differs very sharply from a standard printed index. The standard book index typically makes it simple to pull out the information sought, if it lists it at all, but it can only be far more limited than the indexing made available by the leveraging of Orlando's markup. Searching a printed index is either easy or impossible; Orlando makes many more options available, but as a less naturalized form of technology, it requires an effort of learning at the outset.
The encoding's nested structure also means that conceptual tags can be used to specify the context in which a search is conducted. So, for instance, a search on India within the tag Setting Place brings together roughly a tenth of all occurrences of 'India' in the textbase: exclusively those which mention it as a setting for fiction. Similarly, nested tag searching can be used to gather mentions of Catholicism as a belief-system of writers, as opposed to Catholicism as it connects with writers' political activity, or as an element in texts, or in historical events concerning it.

Critical Overview of the Tagset

Orlando entries divide the discussions of lives and writing careers into two discrete accounts on separate screens (although the Life and Writing tab allows these to be read in parallel). This division (familiar in works of literary history at least from Johnson's Lives of the Poets onwards) has both advantages and disadvantages intellectually: in Orlando it is one of the major shaping impacts of the markup system. The discussion of biographical issues on one hand and of literary texts on the other employs distinct ideas and vocabularies, and the hierarchical and exclusive structure of SGML tagging makes it preferable to separate the two.
The Life tagset and the Writing tagset which, together, provide the interpretive structure of Orlando, are organized quite differently from one another. The life tagset is very hierarchical (which means that its top-level interpretive tags are mutually exclusive, as are the subtags below them in the hierarchy). The writing tagset, by contrast, is unconventionally 'flatter' or less hierarchical, for the purpose of facilitating discussion of interrelated features of a writer's career. Most tags in the writing tagset can be freely inter-nested with one another, so making it easier to flag multiple concerns simultaneously. The two tagsets are thus experiments in the use of different kinds of tagging structures for this kind of work.

Life tagset

Accounts of writers' lives describe the material and social conditions from which their work emerged, including the various networks—familial, social, political, occupational—to which they belonged. Though biography of women has often drawn attention away from what women actually wrote, sometimes marginalizing or denigrating it, biographical material—its treatment and emphases revolutionised as a result of feminist questions and goals Bibliographic Citation link. —is a necessary means of getting at the changing historical conditions negotiated by women writing in the British Isles. It is foundational to this history.
The Orlando tagset for biographical material conceptually maps the life of a writer according to sixteen major categories, shown in the Tag Diagram, used to demarcate discussion of the crucial events in and aspects of a writers' life. Many of these have dedicated attributes or subtags that further indicate what is being discussed. The Education tag, for instance, has an attribute for Mode (to indicate either domestic, institutional, or self-taught learning), as well as tags for educational Award, schooling Companion, Contested Behaviour, Degree, Instructor, School (which itself has attributes for various types of institution), Subject, and formative Text. The Family tag (which is used for both birth and marital families) is equally rich in sub-elements and attributes.
'Cultural Formation'
The most complex tag in the biography tagset is the Cultural Formation tag and its subtags. Any history of women's writing in the British Isles must represent the diversity of its subjects. This tagset makes it possible to identify and retrieve information related to social identity and subjectivity, such as race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexuality, class, and political allegiance, and to address different combinations and interactions of these for different writers.
It is a challenge to represent diversity in an encoding scheme, because the tags assign material to categories, and so contain it. Some readers will come to Orlando to seek out writers associated with particular cultural identities and positions: Jewish, working-class, lesbian, or immigrant writers, for instance. But on the other hand such categories are discursive rather than ontological. Heritage is mixed, and allegiances and practices shift. And precisely because such identity labels are constituted through linguistic and social practices, vocabularies associated with them change over time. A history grounded largely in the careers of individual writers must take account of the fact that cultural identities shift within the wider society, as well as within an individual's self-conception or lifetime.
The challenge was to identify, through tagging, the women writers associated with particular subject positions or with constituencies that interest readers, without being reductive or serving pernicious ends (for instance, essentializing concepts such as 'race'). While a fixed form of vocabulary, either of text content or attributes, would make retrieval of groups of writers easy, it would be both theoretically and practically counterproductive.
Orlando's strategy is the cultural formation element, which is used at an early point in almost every Life discussion and sometimes again later to describe, for instance, religious conversion or sexual re-alignment. Available in the overall cultural formation tag are 'issues' tags which can encode substantial discussions of issues associated with Class, Nationality, Race and Ethnicity, Religion, and Sexuality. In addition to these, there are more specific tags that describe, in a word or short phrase, Class, Ethnicity, Geographical Heritage, Language, Nationality, National Heritage, Political Affiliation, Race or Colour, Religious Denomination, and Sexual Identity. No fixed vocabulary is associated with any of these tags except class.
The Cultural Formation tagset allows extensive freedom in the representation of cultural formation; it also seeks to forestall simplistic interpretation of results obtained through searching. Discussion can be organized under a broad rubric with one of the 'issues' tags, and may invoke one or more modes of social classification with the more granular tags. Searches may target an 'issue' or a category. All tags contain free text without any attempt to systematize the contents, which are therefore meaningful only in relation to the words that surround them, other uses of the same words in other contexts, words as they circulate within the writers' and the readers' understanding. That is, the Cultural Formation tagset insists that such identities are culturally produced and embedded in discourse. The tagging scheme does not disambiguate cultural categories from each other, instead understanding them as mutually constitutive with historically specific discursive structures, including our tagging structures. Much that the cultural formation tag encodes is matter for debate or controversy, even among Orlando's taggers. It serves to demonstrate how encoding can be used to point not towards a rigid classificatory system but towards raising and debating issues, while still allowing for productive searching on particular categories.

Writing tagset

The Orlando entries on writing are almost always longer than their Life counterparts, and the Writing tagset has a far larger number of unique interpretive tags. The tagset's three major subdivisions of Production, Textual Features, and Reception are separately diagrammed. Its less hierarchical structure, however, means these three major tags are merely general indications of the overall emphasis of the discussion they contain, while subtags 'belonging' to each of these major tags can actually be found within any one of the three. In practice, this means that while extensive discussions of genre are normally situated within a Textual Features tag, the Genre tag may equally well occur within passages about Reception or Production.
Genre is crucial to the thinking of students, critics, and historians of literature. For this reason, searches for generic categories work both on entries and on events about writers or texts not treated in full entries. The Genre tag has presented challenges analogous to those posed by the Cultural Formation tag in the Life tagset. The anticipated popularity of genre as a category for searching, on the one hand, confronts on the other the multiplicity, historical mutability, and inconsistency in critical usage of specific genres. Genre, however, unlike Cultural Formation, commands enough consensus among scholars to warrant the use of a fixed vocabulary, even though such a vocabulary cannot cover every possible case or meet every expectation. Greater flexibility and nuance is achieved by the fact that multiple Genre tags can be used in relation to the same text.

Literature and Computing

Orlando was conceived by three literary scholars whose wish was to bring together into a useful contemporary history some of the rich material on women's writing that has emerged from recent scholarship. Seeking to meet those goals, the editors were led into exploration of the entirely new (to us) terrain of humanities computing. Our research project then doubled. We wanted now to create a history that would be new in two senses: it would claim a place in the stories we tell about our literary pasts, and it would experiment with representing that story electronically. Our early (naïve) sense of the dizzying potential of electronic texts has been tempered by our acceptance (and indeed our celebration) of what is feasible at this particular juncture. We hope that the Orlando textbase, which is the work of many hands, will give its readers unprecedented access to critical material on women's writing in the British Isles, as well as an idea of the potential of the digital for new kinds of research in the humanities. Interestingly, these disciplines, which to many seem the very antithesis of the digital, have already seized the potential of computers to make new discoveries about language and culture, and, indeed, as many scholars including Patrick Leary have noted, the relationship of students and scholars to the past is now already "crucially mediated by digital technology." Bibliographic Citation link.
We initiated discussion of the digital aspects of Orlando with a reminder that the object of our study is literature and the purpose of our experiment the exploration of literary history. Retaining this awareness, the Orlando venture in feminist literary history aims to contribute to a future of electronically-assisted study of many kinds. Making digital resources serve such approaches may be more laborious and challenging than quantitative approaches, and the returns may seem comparatively modest, but an insistence on the necessity of interpretation, on retaining nuance, on the inevitability of fuzziness will provide tools necessary for the future. Indeed, in fostering critical and methodological self-consciousness, markup systems can operate as a culmination of, rather than a departure from, recent theoretically and politically informed work in the humanities.
The last few decades, which have transformed the collective sense of literary history, have also provided new ways of doing it. Orlando's structured and dynamic text allows students and researchers to pursue a wide range of connections, discovering many potential histories. Readers and users of Orlando complete the chain of many collaborators, creating new narratives, new conclusions, unforeseen questions.
Susan Brown, Patricia Clements, Isobel Grundy                    Edmonton and Guelph, May 2006
The Orlando Project is based in the Research Institute for Women's Writing at the University of Alberta, with a site at the University of Guelph. For more on the Orlando Project as a whole, including some online publications, visit the public website.
Back to top