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."
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.