Modernism / modernity Print +

One of the most successful transhistorical collaborative feminist projects in DH [Digital Humanities] is Susan Brown, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy’s (along with myriad other contributors and participants) Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present. . . . If [Nancy] Cunard had to cover her hands in ink and learn to print in order to publish the kinds of modernist texts she wanted to see in the world, and if Virginia Woolf had to begin a ‘press of one’s own’ in order to publish her own novels as she wished, we as feminist scholars have to do likewise, the Orlando team argues, and learn how to configure, use, and analyze the digital resources that now distribute modernist texts to readers.

Claire Battershill, Alice Stavely, Helen Southworth, and Elizabeth Willson Gordon, “Collaborative Modernisms, Digital Humanities, and Feminist Practice”Modernism/modernity Print +, Vol. 3, Cycle 2 (August 2018).

Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology

Orlando, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2015, is a watershed project for feminist recovery in digital humanities in general and in digital literary studies in particular.

Roopika Risam“Introduction: Gender, Globalization, and the Digital”, in Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology 8 (2015).

ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830

Like most scholars today, I make frequent use of digital databases . . . . Most of these sessions have left me jaded about the motivations (grant capture before research questions) and limitations (potential obsolescence) of such initiatives. Orlando is, and hopefully will remain, one of the exceptions in this landscape. . . . the term textbase rather than database signal[s] the myriad ways the text and electronic structure can provide qualitative responses to complex research questions. This is not digitisation with extras but literary scholarship and history that is searchable and adaptable to the needs of individual researchers.

Melanie BigoldReview of OrlandoABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 3:1 (April 2013).

Digital Humanities Quarterly

Orlando documentation argues that beyond simply structuring the secondary texts, the markup “offers myriad new ways to probe women’s literary history,” allowing a reader to explore the argument that the history of writing in the service of women’s rights and equality is a long one. . . . Rather than taking each historical narrative expressed by the DTD as declarative, I am suggesting that we understand them as creating speculative historical narratives that offer new ways of reading women’s texts.

Jacqueline Wernimont“Whence Feminism? Assessing Feminist Interventions in Digital Literary Archives”Digital Humanities Quarterly 7:1 (2013).

The Scriblerian

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the number of digital Restoration and eighteenth-century archives and databases has proliferated. . . . . With diminishing resources for many universities, however, distinctions need to be made. Worth the investment, Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present . . . should be considered indispensable for all scholars of literary history. . . . Much to their credit, the project's editors, Susan Brown, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, have given great consideration to Orlando's macro- and micro-organizational principles. Ranging across factual, conceptual, critical, and interpretive tags, their customized markup system provides in-depth information on the lives and works of women writers as well as their political, literary, economic, and cultural contexts. With the goal of creating a "comprehensive scholarly history of writing by British women," it provides individual investigators with a productive tool for generating chronologies and "herstories" that we could only have dreamed of writing in an earlier era . . . . Fortunately, the editors here do more than most to explain their choices and to discuss the potential implications of their markup system. Thanks to their collective intellectual labors, users will have access to as many rooms of their own as they can imagine.

Lisa A. Freeman, "Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present (review)", The Scriblerian, 44:2, 45:1 (Spring and Autumn 2012), 87-9. 

Most readers of this journal will be familiar already with Cambridge University Press's magisterial database, Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present, overseen by Susan Brown, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy. The database . . . has changed the parameters of the scholarship and teaching of British women's writing. . . . The information on the Orlando database is nothing short of priceless, breathtaking in its scope and endlessly useful.

Toni Bowers, "Exploring the Richardson Circle using the Orlando Database", The Scriblerian, 44:2, 45:1 (Spring and Autumn 2012),          56-8. 

Huntington Library Quarterly

The experiment is unquestionably a successful one. Orlando's most obvious utility, as with the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, involves the ability to turn to its entries on more than 800 individual British women writers for specific biographical or bibliographical information. For example, Orlando's entry on Jane Austen or Frances Burney is in many ways more useful than the ODNB's: it supplies more specific dates and employs a hierarchical structure that enables the reader to jump easily to specific portions of each entry. . . . Orlando, in that sense, offers one-stop biographical and book-historical shopping. Orlando's unique value is in providing 'materials [that] are capable of a high degree of interaction.' To be sure, one can do a full-text search in the ODNB for the word 'antiquarian' or 'bluestocking' and come up with some surprising and valuable results, but in Orlando, the ability to quickly investigate not only such keywords but also circles of writers—particularly by tracing connections among individual writers (male and female)—is unprecedented. One can learn not only about interpersonal connections and literary influences but also about locations, events, occupations, genres, birth position, and other categories that link British women writers (and a smaller selection of male or non-British women writers) to each other.

Devoney Looser, "Enlightenment Women's Voices", Huntington Library Quarterly 73:2 (June 2010), 295-302. 

Libraries and the Academy

Endeavors like Orlando are forcing the evolution of database into a more flexible tool for humanities scholars. The explicitly political goal of the Orlando Project to write women into British literary history was facilitated by the use of SGML encoding because it allowed its creators to specify and foreground those aspects of their texts that they wished to highlight and make searchable. Databases and encoded texts implicitly privilege some things over others and thus determine the kinds of questions one may pose. Unfortunately, in the digital environment, the nature of those limits is often invisible to the user. This is why many are troubled by Google's failure to reveal its ranking algorithms. Creating the tagsets and search engine for the Orlando Project and making the code explicit and visible was central to their project. Nevertheless, no one is declaring text encoding to be a panacea.

Marlene Manoff, "Archives and Database as Metaphor: Theorizing the Historical Record", Libraries and the Academy 10:4 (October 2010), 385–398. 

Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies

The Orlando textbase is one of those online resources that can swallow hours of your life in pleasurable, work-related browsing. This seductive capacity to devour time may or may not be a good thing, depending on whether you should actually be planning a lecture or marking essays, but it is certainly enjoyable and, joking apart, Orlando is also undoubtedly useful. Those working in the long eighteenth century will find it an informative and in some respects unique research tool, with much of interest for scholars of the period.

Bibliographic citation links allow you to see where just about everything has come from, and also mean that anyone coming fresh to a particular writer has a useful starting-point for building up a bibliography. This is one of the many ways in which Orlando provides something very different from the various printed dictionaries, encyclopaedias and guides to women's writing available. (277)

Gillian Skinner, Review of Orlando, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 22:2 (March 2010), 277-78.

Eighteenth-Century Fiction

... each Orlando Project entry serves the beginning student and advanced researcher alike; it provides an introductory survey of a particular author, but can also function as a source of the latest critical understandings of the author and an encouragement for further advanced research on the themes, influences, and cultural contexts radiating out from that author.

[...] Orlando's most innovative contribution to humanities scholarship is the modelling of more interpretive, open-ended, thematic database research. The database encourages what it terms "Tag Searches," in which entries have been tagged to highlight key terms relating to topics unique to literary history; searches can return information relating to biographical details, literary production, literary reception, textual features, and essential or "core tag" details such as dates and names. Orlando allows searches for topics that are not part of a "typical" database search—such as editions, circulation, anthologization, and type of press—but are of keen interest to researchers of reading and writing culture. Orlando thus captures some of the most recent trends in history of the book and material culture studies and translates those interests into research queries that can be performed quickly and efficiently.

[...] Orlando enacts exciting new approaches to women's history, literary history, and the history of the book by translating those approaches into an equally exciting database organization. The textbase features authoritative summaries of women's lives and writing, new cultural and thematic topics for "tagged" investigations, and innovative processes for performing searches across disciplines and time periods. Perhaps most importantly, Orlando encourages the researcher to see new patterns, new connections, and new traditions—and thus to think in new ways. The transformative effect of women's writing is keenly felt by the Orlando researcher. With its ability to encourage new thinking in both the entry-level student and the advanced researcher, Orlando deserves a prominent place in the electronic database collection of every research library.

Cynthia Nixon, “A Sample of Results”, Eighteenth-Century Fiction 22:2 (Winter 2009), 371-79. 

Times Higher Education

[T]he possibilities offered by [Orlando's] "interpretive tagging,"... enable the information about an individual writer's life and work to be searched by time, place, genre and occupation. One can look at all the authors who were nuns or librarians; who wrote agit-prop, anthems or art criticism,; who had links with Scarborough or South Africa. The biographers can also be interrogated in multiple further ways. Such options enable kinds of research quite impossible in a book. But they also indirectly help generate alternatives to more "mainstream" perspectives.

Matthew Reisz, Review of OrlandoTimes Higher Education 928:1 (December - January 2009), 48-51.


[H]igh standard of biographical and historiographical interpretation and writing . . . . an irrefutable confirmation that any one life (and life writing) is always a network of relations, locations, events, and categories.

Orlando isn't just all about any woman writer who ever had anything to do with the British Isles, and some affiliated writers, or about the historical context for these longstanding traditions. It's also all about markup. It's about demystifying digital research for the scholar who might secretly still believe technology belongs to non-humanists or to nerdy men. On the contrary, markup is man-womanly in a Woolfian sense, some sort of cross-dressing of logic, poetry, sewing, and architecture. No longer romanticizing infinite possibilities, the digital community acknowledges that coding is interpretive.

Allison Booth, Review of OrlandoBiography 31: 4 (Fall 2008), 725-34. 

Modern Philology

Opening up Orlando reminds me of first seeing Judy Chicago's installation The Dinner Party (a work likewise remarkable in form as much as content)—three decades later, it is still thrilling and affirming to have women's countless contributions to Western culture and society made visible. What is new in the twenty-first century, however, is that now the guest list of history-making women is electronic—and there are always more seats at the table. In this sense, Orlando goes beyond earlier constructions of alternative canons, whose printed form tended to reproduce hierarchies of 'major' and 'minor' writers, not to mention the naturalization of a fixed tradition.

We might say, then, that Orlando's narrative is grand not in its seamless hegemony but rather in its tireless productivity. Ceding narratorial agency to each user, this is a women's history intrinsically committed to a process of continual revision and multiplication of variants.

Flexible, practical, and worldly in its approach to identity politics, Orlando is a good example of what I have optimistically begun to call the New Women's Studies: feminist scholarship willing once again to proceed under the sign of 'women'—not in defiance of theoretical work disaggregating 'women' and destabilizing 'identity' but precisely through having engaged with and processed this work to the point of making it our common sense.

Susan Fraiman, "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens—With Help from a New Digital Resource for Literary Scholars", Modern Philology, August 2008, 142-48.

Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature

Orlando features not only British women writers but rather a wide range of male and female writers in some way related to literature associated with the British Isles. As a modernist, I welcomed entries on American writers H. D., Djuna Barnes, and Marianne Moore.

It is inspiring to see such richly collaborative work in action in the humanities, enabled and encouraged by the Orlando framework; this reads as a real example of what Vera John Steiner calls the 'co construction of knowledge.' . . . I soon realized that the ground breaking (I should say pathfinding) nature of the project's set up lay in how its structure allows one to navigate such pages [individual entries] in aggregate. . . . What Orlando allows you to do, in a spirit nicely faithful to the agility implied by Woolf's Orlando, is to choose your own adventure. . . . When one departs from the usual technique of shuttling immediately to an individual writer's entry, one appreciates more fully the mercurial quality of the information, uniquely susceptible of rearrangement thanks to the intricate electronic encoding system. This system of electronic tagging both indicates and enables theoretical savvy.

The rich corpus of information the Orlando team has managed to build in the project's brief lifespan is nothing short of astonishing. In both theoretical and practical terms, this exciting project makes superb use of the implications of new technologies, and like Woolf's Orlando, it points to the future. Like Woolf's oak tree, may it flourish and ramify.

Miranda Hickman, Review of OrlandoTulsa Studies in Women's Literature, 27:1 (Spring 2008), 180-86.