The third biennial Women’s History in the Digital World conference was held at Maynooth University last week, organized by Jennifer Redmond and Jackie Crowley. First initiated in 2013 at the Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education at Bryn Mawr College, Redmond (former Director of the Greenfield Center) moved it to Ireland for this third iteration. It was a great opportunity to hear about and learn from an array of projects that are exploiting digital technologies to understand women’s history and engage wider publics with it.
The first panel I attended presented the work of three participants in the Founding Women project, part of the Founding Era Collection published by Rotunda, the digital division of University of Virginia Press. Rachel Love Monroy discussed the challenges of digitally editing the commonplace books of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson (1737-1801), including how to register material vestiges of her writing such as dried flowers. Lauren Haumesser’s account of her digital edition of Sarah Coles Stevenson’s (1789-1848) letters – many of which related her impressions of British culture while ambassador’s wife – raised the question of how much is too much indexing/tagging. Melissa Gismondi’s paper on Rachel Donelson Jackson (1767-1828; wife to president Andrew) argued for her importance in expanding the study of early American women to southern and western frontiers.
The next session, ‘Spotlight on Large Projects’, kicked off with Eric Pumroy’s introduction to the College Women digital repository, a collaboration between ‘the seven sisters’, the earliest women’s colleges in the US.
This site is a portal that serves as a way into each institution’s collections of diaries, letters, scrapbooks and photographs – the documents, in short, of women’s participation in higher education from the mid-nineteenth century.
Cécile Gordon presented on women in the Military Service Pensions Project, hosted by the Irish Department of Defence. Comprising 250,000 records relating to 85,000 individuals who were in military service during the Easter Rising and Civil War, this mammoth process of digitization is ongoing.
Gordon’s discussion of how they’ve gone about contextualizing and making sense of this material argued for what she terms ‘provenance-based methodology’: examining the contexts prior to tackling individual documents themselves. She also coined the phrase of the conference: ‘scanning is not about preservation; scanning is about access’. As Gordon observed, there are many PhDs waiting to be written about this newly accessible material.
The panel on ‘Collaborating and Crowdsourcing’ opened up a host of innovative approaches to engaging students and the public in digitized transcription projects. Elizabeth Novara discussed her experiences with Transcribe Maryland.
As curator-librarian, she worked with undergraduate students at the University of Maryland, encouraging them to engage in public history by organising a transcribeathon and actively recovering marginalized, local voices. Leslie Fields of Mount Holyoke (one of the seven collaborating on the College Women project) spoke about the reception history of Mary Woolley and her partner Jeannette Marks’s correspondence, originally suppressed by College authorities due to their lesbian relationship. Having unpicked this history, Fields has enjoyed particular success with alumni groups, engaging them in large-scale transcribeathons of the College’s records. This history demonstrates real public impact; the Woolley/Marks letters inspired Byrna Turner’s play ‘Bull in a China Shop’, performed at the Lincoln Center, New York, earlier this year (see review in New York Times). Finally, Rebecca Parmer and Ariella Rotramel described their experiences using WikiEd as a platform in their undergraduate feminist theory course to transform students from knowledge consumers to knowledge creators.
Alex Ketchum kicked off the next morning’s discussion with an account of the Historical Cooking Project/Le projet de cuisine historique, which has been running since November 2013 in Montreal. The collective have been trying out recipes from cookbooks published as far afield as the Soviet Union, Canada, France and more, documenting their experiments in blogs and using these to bridge the gap between academic and broader audiences.
Conor Heffernan’s paper on physical culture (defined as ‘exercises in which the development of the body is the principal aim’) in Ireland, 1890-1914, uncovered the gender politics of the movement, starkly illustrated in contemporary photographs (a number sourced from Dublin City Libraries’ digitized collections) and painstaking searches through diaries of the period. Lastly, Vanessa Hannesschläger gave a theoretically refined paper on a project she undertook to analyse retrospectively the gender distribution of contributors to the 2016 TEI conference. Their analysis focused on the gender associations of forenames (hence neatly circumventing self-identification as determinant); Hannesschläger talked us through the various software toolkits they used and the limitations revealed by the experiment.
Liz Stanley’s keynote, ‘She’s in pieces! Who, what & where is “she”, with cautionary thoughts about putting “her” together again’, problematized the female subject and her archive in the digital world. Stanley used her experiences of creating digital ‘metacollections’ (or ‘uber-archives’) – specifically, the Olive Schreiner Letters Online and the Whites Writing Whiteness project – to think through the nature of cultural assemblage, its alteration and reception in the digital environment. She stressed the importance of explaining the processes involved in producing the uber-archive to counteract user perceptions that all necessary context is supplied within it.
The Jane Addams Papers Project was the focus of the final panel. Here, Cathy Moran Hajo, Victoria Sciancalepore and Anneliese Dehner discussed the genesis of the project (from 83-reel microfilm edition in 1985 through to the current print and digital editions), their experience using Omeka as the platform for the digital edition, and the design imperatives applied to the user interface.
With apologies to the parallel panels I could not attend – Jenna Ashton on Digital Women’s Archive North; Clare Lanigan on the Digital Repository of Ireland; Rosario Mascato on the ‘Catalogue of Spanish Literature Translations (1914-1940)’ project; Anastasia Khodyreva on cinematic femininities in Putin’s Russia; Mara Kelly on Laura’s Social Movements Archives; Ida Milne on the internet and alternative health facts; Alvean Jones on the Irish Deaf History Archives; Helena Byrne on oral history and women’s soccer in 1960s Drogheda; and Monika Rudaś-Grodka, Katarzyna Nadana-Sokołowska, Ewa Serafin-Prusator and Dominik Purchała on the Polish ‘Women’s Archives’ project – the conference demonstrated the strength and depth of women’s history in the digital world. See #whdw17 for all live tweets.