Women Writers Project History

The Women Writers Project has its intellectual roots in two communities whose synergy began to be evident at the end of the 1980s. The first of these was the growing field of early modern women’s studies, whose project was to reclaim the cultural importance of early women’s writing and bring it back into our modern field of vision. The other was the newly developing area of electronic text encoding, with its emphasis on improved access and longterm preservation of textual data. As a method of bringing inaccessible texts back into use, the electronic archive seemed like the ideal successor to the physical archive, since it promised to overcome the problems of inaccessibility and scarcity which had rendered women’s writing invisible for so long. This partnership of archival scholarship and electronic technology has become a model for text encoding projects all over the world.

The WWP was founded at Brown University by a group of faculty from Brown and other institutions in the late 1980s, and received its first funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1988. In the first five years of the project, we transcribed an initial collection of about 200 texts, and began making draft printouts available for teaching and research. With Oxford University Press, we also experimented with publishing editions of selected texts in traditional print form. The 15-volume series Women Writers in English, 1350–1850 is still in print.

In 1993, with the publication of the expanded TEI Guidelines, the WWP began a three-year period of research on how to use the new guidelines to represent early women’s texts, and how to convert our existing encoding to the new model. During this interval, we encoded very few new texts, but we established a new set of encoding methods, set up improved systems of documentation and training, and began the long process of converting our legacy data.

With the new encoding system in place, we resumed encoding texts in earnest in 1996. From 1997 to 2000, with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we developed Renaissance Women Online, a project studying the impact of electronic texts on teaching and research. As part of this grant we commissioned introductory materials for 100 texts from the “long renaissance”, constituting a sub-collection entitled “Renaissance Women Online” within WWO. With support from the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities we also sponsored “In Her Own Words”, a one-woman show based on the life and writing of Elizabeth I. And the National Endowment for the Humanities renewed our funding once more in 1999 to encode a group of new texts focusing on satire, gender politics, and the cultural context of 18th-century England.

We reached a very important watershed in 1999 with the publication of Women Writers Online, which made the WWP collection available electronically after over a decade of work. From this point forward, WWO has been offered by subscription to universities, libraries, and individuals, reaching over 220 institutions. Subscription fees remain the most important form of support the WWP’s ongoing work, but we also provide discounted and free subscriptions as necessary to ensure broad access.

In the decades following the release of WWO, the project began several new initiatives. We published our documentation and also a Guide to Scholarly Text Encoding. We also established our curriculum of workshops and seminars in text encoding, and held a series of conferences on Women in the Archives. The project has undertaken several important research initiatives that bring collaborative attention to both digital methods and women's writing: a 2012 symposium on Knowledge Organization and Data Modeling, an NEH Collaborative Research Grant on readership and reception history, titled "Cultures of Reception" whose major outcome is Women Writers in Review, and an NEH Collaborative Research grant titled "Intertextual Networks" studying intertextuality and citation in the WWO collection.

Institutionally, the WWP has had a varied history. We began life in the Brown University English Department; after some time there and as an extra-departmental group we were brought in 1994 into the Computing and Information Services organization, as part of the newly founded Scholarly Technology Group led by Allen Renear. In 2009 we were moved once again (together with STG) into the Library as part of the newly formed Center for Digital Scholarship. In 2013, the WWP and its staff moved to Northeastern University to become part of the Digital Scholarship Group in the Northeastern University Library.