The Perdita Project--A Winter's Report
Jill Seal
The Nottingham Trent University

Seal, Jill. "The Perdita Project--A Winter's Report." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.3 (January, 2001): 10.1-14 <URL:

  1. The Perdita Project was very pleased to see such a positive review of our project in EMLS 6.2 (May 2000) (http://www.shu.ac.uk/emls/iemls/reviews/hagglund.htm). However, the reviewer seems to have mistaken the website for the project. In the light of this misconception, and as we are now roughly half way through the main phase of the project, we feel that this is an opportune moment for a progress report giving the current state of affairs.

  2. Since our notice of the project's launch (http://www.shu.ac.uk/schools/cs/emls/03-2/burkperd.html), in EMLS 3.2 (September 1997), a great deal has happened, most of it 'offline.' Our website as it stands is where we provide updated information about the project. It is not an internet service. The sample extracts (which are not full entries) provide text through HTML, without any search capacity. We will be redesigning the website early this year to include more of our research, publications, and links to other sites of interest.

    Project aims

  3. The Perdita Project, based at Nottingham Trent University, is producing a searchable online catalogue of over 400 manuscript compilations by British women in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These manuscripts are presently located in libraries and archives around the world. They include 'literary' and 'non-literary' writing--poetry, meditations, plays and histories, as well as recipes, accounts and journals. Our catalogue will include biographical and bibliographical articles and detailed content descriptions, searchable under various categories. In 2002 we hope to release the project resource online. The catalogue will continue to be maintained at NTU.

    The project so far

  4. In 1999 we were awarded substantial AHRB funding, enabling the project to employ a research fellow and a research assistant until 2002. The current members of the team are: Dr Elizabeth Clarke (project director), Dr Martyn Bennett (project director), Dr Jonathan Gibson (research fellow), Dr Jill Seal (research assistant) and Dr Gillian Wright (research assistant). Dr Victoria Burke (research fellow and co-founder of the project) has taken up a position as Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa from October 2000, but she continues her work on Perdita; she has already secured a research assistant (Laura Johnstone) to look at texts relating to midwifery. Dr Marie-Louise Coolahan, having obtained her doctorate in 2000, is now a lecturer at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She is also continuing to collaborate with the project. We are very fortunate to have an advisory board consisting of eminent Renaissance scholars: Peter Beal, Margaret Ezell, Ann Hughes and David Norbrook.

  5. Our normal method of research involves studying a microfilm of the relevant manuscript for the basic catalogue description before visiting the physical object to examine such things as binding, colouring, watermarks, and collation. Victoria Burke has examined a large number of the manuscripts in the USA. We have bought in the microfilms where possible. The ordering process is now nearly complete, and work on compiling the catalogue itself is in progress.


  6. As a project we are aiming to create a catalogue that is platform-independent, flexible and searchable. Deciding on standards--for the manuscript descriptions, for search terms, for digitisation methods--has been the most difficult aspect of this project. To some extent it has also slowed our progress on the catalogue entries as we try to finalise the format of our documents.

  7. We wanted our resource to be highly searchable, to include a sense of the manuscripts' physical structure, and also to include detailed and subtle discussions of the manuscripts. The first decision we had to make was the encoding system we would use. We decided to embark on an associate partnership with MASTER (Manuscript Access through Standards for Electronic Resources), an EU-funded project to create a special subset of the TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) rules to enable digitisation of manuscript catalogues in libraries across Europe. (http://www.cta.dmu.ac.uk/projects/master/)

  8. MASTER is excellent for digitising the physical description of a manuscript, but it was written mainly with medieval manuscripts in mind, and sometimes the framework has not allowed for the complicated patterns of authorship and collaborative work, or the informality, of our manuscripts. Jill Seal has been able to attend meetings of the MASTER workgroup and suggest minor changes to the rules to make it more able to deal sensitively with a large range of manuscript types. We are very excited to be involved with this pioneering effort.

  9. In terms of searching the resource thematically, appropriate and accepted standards do not seem to exist at present. To gain an idea of user expectations, we ran a small user survey in the summer of 2000, in collaboration with Miranda Girdlestone and Claire Warwick of the Department of Information Studies at the University of Sheffield. Aimed at early modern scholars, particularly those with research interests in manuscripts and/or women, this requested information on research topics, specific keywords and searching techniques. The results gave us a clearer idea of what will be expected from our resource, and a stronger basis for our choice of keywords. We may run a larger survey next year. We are also liaising with other projects--the Brown Women Writers Project, the Orlando Project and the Corvey Project--to come up with funding for a cross-project thesaurus, which would (in theory) enable searching under specific topics across the projects.

    Friends of Perdita

  10. One of the joys of working on a funded project is facilitating networks of people with the same interests. We have a list of nearly 200 "Friends of Perdita": people who are interested in our project, mostly from Britain, the USA and Canada. We keep them informed of our progress and other interesting events, as well as inviting them to participate in user surveys. (If you would like to be on this list, send us an email.)

  11. From 1997 to 1999 the Perdita team has been intimately involved with the Trinity/Trent colloquia, a series of six half-day conferences on early modern women's manuscripts, run by Elizabeth Clarke and the late Jeremy Maule of Trinity College, Cambridge. These have been very successful, with speakers such as Katherine Duncan-Jones, Germaine Greer, Elizabeth Hageman, Elizabeth Heale, David Norbrook, Jane Stevenson, Betty Travitsky, and Heather Wolfe. Now, with the collaboration of Nottingham Trent, Oxford, and Warwick Universities, the series continues under the name of "Renaissance MS." We have already held three colloquia under the new banner; the next, on women's reading practices, will be held at St Hilda's College, Oxford, on Thursday 1 March 2001. Long may it continue! (For information on future colloquia, send us an email or see our website.)

    Further scholarship

  12. The Perdita team has obtained contracts for two books with Ashgate Publishing: a jointly edited anthology of manuscript poetry by women, Early Modern Women's Manuscript Poetry, and a collection of essays from the Trinity/Trent colloquia 1997-1999, edited by Jonathan Gibson and Victoria Burke. These are logical developments of our work and should be published next year. Trent Editions, Nottingham Trent University's in-house publishers, have started a sub-series for early modern women's writing and the first volume in that is to be The 'Centuries' of Julia Palmer, edited by Victoria Burke and Elizabeth Clarke (now in the presses). The second will be Selected Works of Elizabeth Thomas, edited by Rebecca Mills, and the third Alice Thornton's Book of Remembrances, edited by Jill Seal. Victoria Burke and Elizabeth Clarke have both contributed to Writings by Early Modern Women, volume 9 of English Manuscript Studies (ed. Peter Beal and Margaret Ezell, 2000), in which they discussed the writings of Elizabeth Ashburnham Richardson and Elizabeth Jekyll respectively. We have also contributed a few women to the New DNB!

  13. We have been busy at conferences too, most recently with a workshop panel on receipt books at Attending to Early Modern Women (University of Maryland, November 2000). Papers given at major national and international conferences have included discussions of the work of Anne Bowyer, Katherine Butler, Margaret Cavendish, and Constance Aston Fowler (among others), and have dealt with the reading, writing and editing practices revealed in early modern women's texts, and with issues of editing, anthologizing and teaching this material. We presented our work on standards for electronic resources at the Joint International Conference of the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing and the Association for Computers and the Humanities (July 2000), and the results of our user survey at the Digital Resources in the Humanities Conference (September 2000).

  14. The Perdita Project has so far enjoyed a great deal of success, in original manuscript research, collaborative research in new areas such as digitisation methods, and in disseminating our vision to a wider world. We look forward to the next eighteen months as we complete the catalogue and continue to expand women's social and literary history with more sixteenth- and seventeenth-century women whose writings merit further attention.

Website: http://human.ntu.ac.uk/perdita

Correspondence: Dr Jill Seal, The Perdita Project, EMS, NTU, Clifton Lane, Nottingham NG11 8NS. Email jill.seal@ntu.ac.uk

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).