Last fall, I posted about two projects that take different approaches to digitizing women’s writing: one on Charlotte Yonge, and one on Oliver Schreiner. This spring, I was lucky to participate as an editor in the second annual meeting of the Digital Mitford Project.
Around 15 of us gathered on the beautiful University of Pittsburg at Greensburg campus in the first week of June to talk about digitizing the literature and letters of popular nineteenth-century woman writer, Mary Russell Mitford. Led by Elisa Beshero-Bondar, the project is currently in a testbed phase to digitize the works of Mitford from 1821 to 1826, a fruitful period for Mitford, who wrote several plays and innumerable letters during this time.
Some of the editors came with a specific interest in Mitford. Others among us, myself included, came not only out of dedication to nineteenth-century women’s writing, but also to build skills. Part of my motivation to participate in Digital Mitford was to see how a project like this gets built from the ground up. I’m moving to the University of Calgary (in one week actually!), where I plan to start a Digital Dinah Craik project quite similar to Digital Mitford. I wanted to see how one group was doing it, in order to think through the strategy for my own project. How did the workflow proceed? Were letters transcribed then encoded, or did the transcription and encoding take place at the same time? How were images of the letters shared? How do fifteen editors collaborate on a single personography for the site? What about a content management system, or visualizations?
It was really fun to see how Digital Mitford was developing. The group had been encoding for a year, so there was a good start, but still lots of energy bubbling about and room for input.
One of the biggest take aways for me was how much easier it is to learn digital humanities skills in a group, working on a real project with real stakes. I had been encoding some Craik letters at home, but my TEI was quite rusty and I was making lots of rookie mistakes. Working for one day with many others in the room and strong examples of encoding choices for Mitford’s letters sorted that out for me immediately. I’d also learned about regular expressions and XPath from various THATCamps and the Northeastern Women Writer’s Project TEI Workshops, but I finally got what they were all about once I had a practical application for them. (We used regular expressions, which I now think of as a super-powered find and replace function, to clean up some files of Mitford’s work in HTML and convert them to TEI-XML. XPath came into play when we were searching through the personography to find whether specific people were already entered.) All-in-all, it was an amazing experience.
One thing that may not come as a surprise is that most of us working on Digital Mitford were women. This made me wonder about the gender politics of projects like this one, which seek to encode the letters of non-canonical women writers. Bethany Nowviskie has pointed out that, at least as of 2011, more men than women seem to be attracted to data mining (Debates in the Digital Humanities). Given that there are plenty of women working in the digital humanities, could this mean that women tend to be attracted to projects like Digital Mitford that involve what Ryan Cordell has recently termed “encoding”, versus the big data projects that seem to draw more attention and ire? (Cordell, 8 May 2014, On Ignoring Encoding). It also seems worth considering the fact that Digital Mitford, which tackles a marginalized woman writer, is taking place at a smaller, more regional institution, than say the Shelley-Godwin archive at the University of Maryland. This is not to say that men don’t do plenty of encoding and editing work or that large institutions don’t digitize the works of non-canonical writers. But it does seem worth considering.
What do you think? What are the gender and institutional politics behind who does what work in the digital humanities? Have you sought out a digital humanities project, or, for that matter, any kind of humanities research project, to participate in as a way of building skills and connecting with others? What was your experience like?