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.
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 —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.
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 others, 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.
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.