Independent Women: Recovery, Genre, and Identity in the Archive

Part of this year's lineup on most public broadcasting television stations includes a show called "History Detectives," which describes its purpose on the PBS website with the following:

History Detectives is devoted to exploring the complexities of historical mysteries, searching out the facts, myths and conundrums that connect local folklore, family legends and interesting objects. Traditional investigative techniques, modern technologies, and plenty of legwork are the tools the History Detectives team of experts uses to give new — and sometimes shocking - insights into our national history. (History Detectives)

The television show's description reflects a cultural fascination with archival materials and the belief that archives, attics, or closets might contain possibilities for re-authoring history — and, by extension — identity and assumptions that "need" to be corrected. In scholarship, one way we offer "correction" is by participating in recovering archival materials, often of historically under-represented subjects, such as "women in the archives."

My consideration of women in the archives is from a digital humanities perspective, and I'm in the process of writing a dissertation on database and genre and about my experiences creating a digital archive of nineteenth-century women's writings, which arises from a collection of historical letters and manuscripts in the Perry Library at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. The materials relate to editorial correspondence from the nineteenth century weekly newspaper The Independent, founded in 1848, a Congregationalist journal that focused on social topics, primarily opposition to slavery and women's suffrage. At this point in my work I've digitized (scanned images of) the entire collection, and I'm preparing to encode parts of it, specifically, materials related to editorial correspondence among women writers and the editor of the newspaper. (Some of the names include Helen Hunt Jackson, Mary Clemmer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Rose Hawthorne Lathrop.) I hope to create an archive with the potential to expand over time, and not one limited to the course of my dissertation.

I use the term digital archive to differentiate digital from physical collections, and I specifically mean literary digital archives — digital collections with the purpose of collecting literary-historical texts; and by literary texts I mean manuscripts, correspondence, and ephemera written by or pertaining to authors who are part of the "literary world." I see my work as rhetorical, with digital textuality as its object, and I aim to move beyond theory as an aesthetic project with my work.

In the foreword to Blue Pencils and Hidden Hands, Sharon Harris traces the interest in recovering women's editorial work in 19th-century American periodicals to the 1970s and traces the "burgeoning of women's historiography" overall to the same period (xi). I view the creation of digital archives as participating in this textual evolution — evolution is doubtless a loaded term — of women's historiography. The writings collected at what I'll call "digital recovery archives" belong to textual history, to literature and to other textual forms filed in boxes in archives, spooled on microform reels, or perhaps moldering in someone's attic — letters, diaries, scrapbooks, recipes, signatures, and art. Websites that collect and recover women's writings from archives do not have a standard or agreed-upon name, but they are recognizable as a form. When grouped together, these websites can be considered as an emerging genre — literary databases with the purpose of collecting and recovering women's writings from archives, or from obscurity. As scholars, we can influence what exists online as "representative women," and also can invite the expansion of their numbers, enlarging our understanding of women writers and how knowing them changes how literary history is itself known. By undertaking case studies and constructing an archive, I will attempt to describe characteristics of this emerging genre.

Digital humanities research has only recently begun to consider the topic of database as a genre. (Here I have to note that I'm still in the process of teasing out the tendency of some scholars to conflate the terms database and digital archive.) The Fall, 2007, issue of PMLA, contains a forum on the topic, and in the introduction to the issue, Wai Chee Dimock notes that database is the name that Ed Folsom "proposes for a genre that spills over by design" and that "does away with the illusion of containment altogether" (1378). This tension between containment and expansion is central to the idea of recovering materials from the archive — the activity of locating texts and then delivering them to an audience. Database — or digital collections — allow iconoclasm, even as representations of lives can expand in directions not allowed by a printed page. In short, I view database as the counterpart to recovery.

Creating a name and inscribing a working definition of what I'll call the "digital recovery genre" would contribute to understanding of how digital humanities might change the canon. While recovery archives do not fit an established literary category, they share characteristics and can be generalized. Considering genre means considering limits, a paradox when a digital archive is by nature potentially limitless. Yet a creator who singles out any subject sets limits — choosing women who were well known in their time but unknown in ours; women who never intended or expected their private writings to be exposed and published; or women who are now canonical, but were unknown in their times. I consider how, as Todorov remarks, a "genre, whether literary or not, is nothing other than the codification of discursive properties" (18). To Todorov, understanding genre depends on identifying and naming features of how it is used, more than on formal features or rules. I argue that understanding genre depends on both its use and its formal features. Digital archives can reveal networks of social groups, discourse communities, and circles of influence, such as those of the women in my dissertation project, many of whom knew one another. Creating new digital archives means opening new categories for intellectual inquiry, new categories of epistemology. My project, for example, could potentially affect how scholars consider a number of topics, including but not limited to the following: women's writing in late nineteenth-century American periodicals; social networks among writers and editors; study of manuscripts; the history of the book. My work is influenced by the first-person narratives collected in Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process, in which Lucille Schultz remarks that the authors of the essays "name the subjectivities with which they intentionally and unavoidably approach the print materials, the ephemera, and the physical sites they interrogate" (vii). In the collection, researchers write of their projects finding them in the archives, and not the other way around.

The social action of the digital archive genre encompasses both the "recovery" aspect and the ability of digital texts to promote agency on behalf of the users at a much more rapid pace than print media. As part of our mediated culture, new audiences asking new questions can use digital archives as a tool of research, recovery, and recomposing historical understanding. The design of a digital archive can, as much as its content, encourage interpretation. Designing digital archives is a messy, recursive process. No representation is, or should be represented as, neutral. Construction of a digital archive involves questions of representation — in my case, how to design the archive to create a view of women writing for American periodicals in the Gilded Age. Decisions on how to classify and arrange the materials ultimately contribute to a story of these women's lives, as well as to an ever-expanding understanding of the past though archival artifacts. I consider the role of the digital archivist — myself — in the control of representation — that is, in who "gets" represented and why? Where do I fit in the ongoing number of people involved in handling these documents, from the women who wrote them; to their editor and typesetter; to the woman who carefully glued these papers — the letters and manuscripts — onto the pages of her personal scrapbook, itself an mini-archive? How is the act of "recovering" these texts simultaneously a "covering," in the sense that revealing certain aspects of the texts conceals others?

Understanding generic features of this genre helps reveals how recovery archives participate in how we create knowledge. In The Archeology of Knowledge, Foucault questions the act and activity of history, examining the production of knowledge by describing the process of meaning-making — looking at documents or artifacts from the past and considering how the act of analysis transforms artifacts into monuments — into authoritative statements that comprise how we understand history. Foucault regards the archive as never completed, never achieved, a quest of a historian trying to authorize a view of the past. The historian/archivist/archeologist participates in a discourse of power and knowledge — an institutional, individual, cultural, and societal discourse. An archivist decides what is worth preserving — what to keep and, in archivist parlance, what to weed, determining trash from treasure. Acquisition contributes to the idea that knowledge can be owned, ordered, categorized, or hierarchically arranged. My project addresses my own participation in that discourse and its implication for designers/authors and researchers. I'm gathering the data for my study from two main areas: (1) case studies of digital archives focusing on women's writing; and (2) my individual experience of creating a digital archive. Because the archive I will create focuses on nineteenth-century women's writings, the types of databases I will analyze focus on the collection, contextualization, and delivery of writing by women. Typical of the type of sites to be analyzed are the Dickinson Electronic Archives, the Women Writers Project, and The Orlando Project. I will select sites based upon several characteristics, including the following: (1) the site has institutional support from a university; (2) the site contains (TEI) encoded and facsimile versions of archival manuscripts; and (3) the site represents an ongoing effort to collect and represent archival material written by women. The scope of my case studies is modest, yet I believe analysis of the content and form of these sites will suggest shared attributes. Although I situate my work in digital humanities, my analytical method is based upon Anne Wysocki's rhetorical approach for evaluating multimedia texts, which involves examining the relationships among layout, images, typefaces, and interfaces, to name a few components.

I have developed a rubric to use to evaluate my case studies, and at the moment the rubric primarily addresses interface features. I'd like to finish my presentation by sharing it (see Appendix). Therefore I end my presentation not by considering a conclusion, but by introducing part of my project.

Appendix

Rubric for Home Page

Name of site:__________

Topic of site:_________

Site Definition
TitleWhat does the site call itself? An archive, collection, etc.? What implications does the title have? What expectation does it create?
RationaleDoes the site offer a rationale for its content or design?
GenreDo the design elements suggest a particular genre?
Organization and Design elements
Self-explanationDoes the site explain its organization?
InterfaceWhat metaphors does the home page use to develop its arrangement? For example, is it a container into which information is placed? Is it based on the concept of a physical, paper archive with folders and boxes, or an office with papers, folders, and file cabinets? What sorts of icons are used?
Page layoutHow is the information presented on the page? Are bullets used? How is it aligned? Are there charts, graphs, or technical drawings?
TypefacesWhat kinds are used? Size? Styles? Font? What do they suggest? Formality, informality, etc.
HierarchyWhat sorts of hierarchies are suggested by the arrangement of the elements? What is foregrounded or backgrounded on the page?
MovementHow does the user's eye travel on the page? Top to bottom, left to right, etc.? Are there any clear vectors on which the eye travels?
RepetitionWhat elements are repeated on a page?
ColorWhat are the dominant colors on the page?
TextureIs texture suggested by any of the design elements, such as a background that appears to have ridges or a tactile quality?
Other schemesIs information organized chronologically, alphabetically, or thematically? Is there a lot of information on a page or a spare design?
Navigation
Site entryHow does a user enter the site? What effect does the mode of entry have on the user? Is it easy to access information? Is there an icon to click on to enter the site? How is that labeled or represented?
ToolsWhat navigational links are offered? What headings? Buttons? Does the site offer tips or help? Is there a site index? Can the site be searched from each page? What types of navigation bars are offered? Horizontal or vertical? On each page or not?
SearchabilityWhat modes for searching the site are offered from the home page? What modes for searching are available on other pages of the site? Are there separate modes for browse, search, and interpret? Is the search mode effective? Why or why not?
Media Elements
ImagesWhat types or images are used? How are they arranged? Does image or text take precedence on a page? How do the images chosen affect the overall tone of the site?
Mutli-mediaDoes the home page use new media, such as video, sound, or animation?
Research elements
Primary and secondaryDoes the home page mention the site's use of primary and secondary research? Does it suggest research beyond its own scope?
Authorship
Institutional, individual, etc.One author or multiple? Directed by a university or other organization?
Contact information Email and location of site author(s)?
Content
EmphasisOn one text or many? On the context or content of documents? On both context and content or documents?
Theoretical approachIs there an overt theoretical point of view, such as feminist, Marxist, or Postcolonial? How can you tell? Does the site directly state its theoretical stance?
Range of materialsWhat types of material are presented on the home page? Example: interviews, letters, scans, videos, etc.
Audience
Intended audienceHow can you tell the intended audience from the design? From the language? From the content?

Rubric for pages other than the Home page

Name of site:__________

Name of page:__________

Site Definition
TitlesHow are the pages titled?
SizeDoes the site suggest its own ability to expand in the future? Is that overtly stated on the site?
Organization and Design Elements
InterfaceWhat metaphors do the pages use to develop their arrangement? What sorts of icons are used? Is there a lot of information on a page, or a spare design?
Page layoutHow is the information presented on the page? Are bullets used? How is it aligned? Are there charts, graphs, or technical drawings?
TypefacesWhat kinds are used? Size? Styles? Font? What do they suggest? Formality, informality, etc.
HierarchyWhat sorts of hierarchies are suggested by the arrangement of the elements? What is foregrounded or backgrounded on the page? Is there a middle-ground?
MovementHow does the user's eye travel on the page? Top to bottom, left to right, etc.? Are there any clear vectors on which the eye travels?
RepetitionWhat elements are repeated on a page?
ColorWhat are the dominant colors on the page?
TextureIs texture suggested by any of the design elements, such as a background that appears to have ridges or a tactile quality?
Other organizational schemesIs information organized chronologically, alphabetically, or thematically?
Navigation
Page relationshipsWhat visual elements relate pages to one another? For example, is there a repeated color or background? A design pattern that stays constant?
ToolsWhat navigational links are offered? What headings? Buttons? Does the site offer tips or help? Is there a site index? Can the site be searched from each page? What types of navigation bars are offered? Horizontal or vertical? On each page or not?
SearchabilityWhat modes for searching the site are offered from the home page? What modes for searching are available on other pages of the site? Are there separate modes for browse, search, and interpret? Is the search mode effective? Why or why not?
Media Elements
ImagesWhat types or images are used? How are they arranged? Does image or text take precedence on a page? How do the images chosen affect the overall tone of the site?
Multi-mediaDoes the page use new media, such as video, sound, or animation?
Range of materialsWhat types of material are presented on the page? Example: interviews, letters, scans, videos, etc.
Audience
Intended audienceHow can you tell the intended audience from the design? From the language? From the content?
InteractivityIs there a place on the site for a user to leave a comment or participate in a discussion?

Works Cited

Bawarshi, Anis. "The Genre Function." College English 62.3 (Jan., 2000): 335-360.

Dimock, Wai Chee. "Introduction: Genres as Fields of Knowledge." PMLA 122.5 (October, 2007): 1377-1388.

Harris, Sharon. Blue Pencils and Hidden Hands: Women Editing Periodicals, 1830-1910. Eds. Sharon M. Harris and Ellen Gruber Garvey. Boston: Northeastern U Press, 2004.

Shultz, Lucille M. Foreword. Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process. Eds. Gesa E. Kirsch and Liz Rohan. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.

Todorov, Tzvetan. Genres in Discourse. Trans. Catherine Porter. New York: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Wysocki, Anne. "The Multiple Media of Texts: How Onscreen and Paper Texts Incorporate Words, Images, and Other Media." In What Writing Does and How It Does It: An Introduction to Analyzing Texts and Textual Practices. Eds. Charles Bazerman and Paul A. Prior. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004. 123-63.