WWP The Project Newsletter Archive Volume 4,Number 1 Putting Renaissance Women Online

Putting Renaissance Women Online

Paul Caton, Electronic Publications Editor

For a long time the Women Writers Project has looked towards electronic delivery as the best way to bring its texts before the public eye. Ideally, the means of delivery would also generate revenue to reduce the Project's reliance upon grant funding. In the autumn of 1996 an award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation allowed us to start work in earnest on a system for electronic publication. To develop a model, it was decided to take one hundred works from the period 1500-1670 and put them online in a format geared towards scholars and undergraduate users. Built into the plan was an evaluative component to meet the Mellon Foundation's particular interest in comparing the cost of traditional print-based scholarship with that of using electronic resources. This article reports on the progress of the delivery model, "Renaissance Women Online"; the next newsletter will discuss the evaluation component.

The current model for online delivery of the WWP textbase involves a Web site with some parts free to everybody but full access controlled by license, the principal licensees being universities and large public libraries. A Web-based resource has advantages for all three parties in the delivery triangle. For librarians, purchasing a license gives them in effect a single "copy" which can be accessed by multiple users simultaneously. It involves no specialised or dedicated equipment, no maintenance or training on their part, no problem in keeping up with new issues, and no worry about the product physically deteriorating, being stolen, vandalised, or otherwise abused. For their users, the Web is by far the most easily accessible platform for electronic delivery and many people already feel comfortable in the Web environment. From the Project's point of view, commercial servers allow a finely grained control of access—parts of the site can be made freely accessible without having to duplicate work or destroy the integrity of the design. Also, those in charge of the site can continuously correct, update, and improve the product without having to recall it from purchasers or send out multiple replacements.

Users of the RWO site can access a text in two forms, depending on their purpose. A plain HTML version allows relatively quick access but no searching, which suits the user who wants simply to read or look over a work. The other form uses Inso Corporation's DynaWeb software, which dynamically translates an SGML version to HTML for the browser while retaining access to the SGML; this allows users to perform searches on the SGML-encoded texts, at the cost of somewhat slower access. To date, thirty texts have been put online, although the actual number online day by day varies as changes are made, improvements tested, etc. While great strides are being taken to advance the formatting capabilites of the Web, it is still impossible to accurately reproduce the appearance of the print original; scholars with a special interest in visual details do better consulting an original copy or viewing the work on microfilm. And while the Project's encoding records things such as missing, turned, or incorrect letters in words, or the use of "i" for "j", "u" for "v", etc., that encoding currently has to be omitted from the online version because having tags in the middle of words makes it hard to display or search for those words. Also, many of the characters peculiar to old typography (long "s", macrons, thorns, etc.) have to be replaced with their modern equivalents, because most Web browsers have difficulty displaying them.

The only obviously "Renaissance" feature of the onscreen version is the period spelling, which is retained unchanged throughout the textbase. Practically speaking, it is quite possible with SGML to encode both the original spelling and its modernization, and there would be a number of advantages to doing so, such as improving word searching, and providing an easier reading experience for undergraduates. For the present, the cost of encoding modern spellings is prohibitive for the WWP. However, we are hoping to participate in a research project to develop a search system which would dynamically map variant spellings onto a normalized equivalent, thus making searches on old-spelling documents much more effective.

The RWO site has two target audiences, specialist and non-specialist users, each with different needs. Scholars who specialise in the field and conduct research want to be able to quickly browse a wide range of texts, to be able to study a single text intensively, and to get information which will help them formulate and support assertions. Providing a wide range of texts presents no problem, given the WWP's comprehensive scope. Ease of browsing comes with the HTML versions, as mentioned above. Even using the SGML versions, one of the strengths of the DynaWeb interface is a table of contents feature that allows users to move relatively quickly between points in a large book. Also, it is much easier to access a large number of texts in a short time in an electronic resource than it is in a rare book library or using a microfilm reader. For textual study, Dynaweb has the common search facilities built into it, and it also enables customised pre-formatted queries: a ready-made search for all personal names, for example. A site feature still under development links query forms to a database so users can find what the textbase contains according to author, title, date of publication, Short Title Catalogue number, and so on. Then for each individual work, they can access a set of basic bibliographical data. By no means exhaustive, this information nevertheless helps scholars make quick decisions about what works to look at, and saves them some of the time and effort involved in researching primary works.

Non-specialist users (principally undergraduate students) need firstly, to be able to actually read the texts with relative ease (without having to get over the hurdles of unfamiliar typefaces, special character glyphs, etc.), and secondly, to have expert guidance--written at a non-specialist level--in comprehending and appreciating the works. The problem that non-specialists might have of reading sixteenth and seventeenth-centuryworks largely disappears with the online presentation, but with their often very limited experience of any early modern writing beyond Shakespeare, today's undergraduates could easily open an RWO text and find themselves lost in a sea of unfamiliar thoughts generated by unfamiliar contexts and expressed in a syntax so unfamiliar as to be almost a different language. So RWO has to do more than just bring students and works together, it has to ease the one into the other. It does this by providing a variety of contextual materials which have been written specifically for the RWO site by scholars in the field (generously volunteering their time). These materials help orient the student with regard both to individual works and to the principal topics that women writers of the time thought about, responded to, and published on.

Each individual work comes with its own 'suite' of materials. First, a very brief description of the work helps users decide whether they want to investigate this work further or not. If they do, a short introduction, very like the kind found in print anthologies, describes the work. Then, to help students (and scholars) begin to connect that work with others, another section points out connections users can follow to increase their understanding of how that particular work fits into its era's overall scene of writing. For example, the author may have been part of a coterie of women writers and her work might be a response to something another member wrote. Or the work might be an example of a particular kind of writing (eg. prophetic writing) and it would be useful to know what other instances of that kind of writing the textbase contained. It might be that the work treats a particular theme or issue or is one in a series of works arguing a particular question, like the famous polemical debate which followed the publication of Joseph Swetnam's "Arraignment of ... women" in 1615. The theme, or topic, also guides users into the textbase from the other direction, because we have a collection of short essays, concise summations of the essentials of a topic, similar to encyclopedia entries. So, for example, a student who wants to write a paper on the early seventeenth century debate about women can go first to a short essay on that topic. From there, links will lead to the particular works in the textbase which directly relate to the topic. The last two sections in the suite that accompanies each work--the "Note on the Text" and "Biographical Sketch"--are just what they say.

Like the database information, these contextual materials do not try to be comprehensive. The purpose of the RWO initiative remains the same as that of the WWP as a whole, namely, to bring people to the texts so they can read them, work on them, discover new things about them. The ends, not the means, give electronic resources their value--especially those with pretensions to educational utility. While computers perform mechanistic operations faster than any human ever will, they cannot do anything clever, creative, and illuminating with a text without a human intelligence guiding them. Scholars tell computers what to search for, count, collate, etc., and scholars assess the significance of what computers find.

The Renaissance Women Online web site is now online and growing steadily. At present the site is still in the early stages of development, and is being altered daily as we work on improving its speed and function. It is available for the present as a test site only, so don't count on reliable speed or function (for instance, for classroom use) at present. The final delivery model may be significantly different from the current one, as the Project continues to explore different options by itself and in discussions with interested publishers. However, by 1999 the full Women Writers Project textbase will be available for electronic delivery and can take its place as the important humanities digital resource it has always promised to be.

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