Brown University Women Writers Project (an Internet service, subscriptions from $50 per year, http://www.wwp.brown.edu) and the Perdita Project (an Internet service, currently free of charge, http://human.ntu.ac.uk/perdita/perdita.htm)

Elizabeth Hagglund, University of Birmingham, gcoffi@globalnet.co.uk 

Hagglund, Elizabeth.  "Review of the Brown University Women Writers Project and the Perdita Project." Interactive Early Modern Literary Studies (May, 2000) 1-9: <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/iemls/reviews/hagglund.htm>

  1. The Brown University Women Writers Project is a long-term research undertaking at Brown University, devoted to early modern women's writing and electronic text encoding. Founded in 1986, the project aims to provide accurate electronic editions of all printed texts by women in English up to 1850, and ultimately--although this part of the project is currently suspended--all manuscript writings. The project catalogue gives full bibliographical information for 384 texts, ranging in date from 1526 to 1833. Of these 119 are in the process of being transcribed and are therefore not yet usable. The collection is heavily weighted towards the 17th century, 209 of the catalogued texts being from this period. 30 of the texts are from the 16th century and the rest are from the 18th and 19th centuries. The catalogue is easy to use and the records can be sorted in various ways to make browsing easier. Catalogue records in the widely-used MARC format will soon be available for every text in the database.
  2. At time of writing 175 texts are available on line. Downloading is quick and straightforward. I experimented with saving the texts as hypertext files (tagged in HTML, the language of webpages) and as pure ASCII text files without tagging, and in every case the results were complete and accurate. Printing directly from screen produced similar results. This ease of manipulation should be an example to other providers of electronic texts. As one might expect, the online texts are fully searchable with a simple engine for inexperienced users and a more sophisticated system, based on the DynaWeb query language (which takes some time to learn), for those with more complex enquiries.
  3. 142 of the texts are available as paper printouts sent directly from Brown University and an email order form is provided. 50 of the texts can be both accessed online and as printouts, and a further 90 are currently available only in printed form. The price of printouts ranges from US $5-20 (approximately UK £3 -13) including postage, depending on length, and--most conveniently--can be paid on invoice so there is no need to send money over the Internet. Permission is given for the printed texts to be photocopied for teaching purposes, in line with standard 'fair use' arrangements.
  4. The Brown Women Writers site is linked to the separate but associated project called Renaissance Women Online. This is a collection of 100 Renaissance texts from the Women Writers Project database supplemented by contextualizing introductions to each work and topical essays on women's life and writing in the period. This site is still under development but has the potential to be particularly useful for teaching early women's writing. The introductory and biographical material is straightforwardly written and thus could be used by undergraduates while providing useful background information on little-known texts and authors for scholars. A dozen general topic essays have already been added on subjects including " Women in the Book Trade" (by Maureen Bell), " Coterie Writing" (by Margaret J. M. Ezell), " Translation" (by Reina Green) and " Recusant Defenses" (by Olga Valbuena). The term 'Renaissance' is taken here as approximately synonymous with the term 'early modern' and the majority of the texts, like those in the main database, are from the 17th century.
  5. As well as providing the primary materials, the site offers explanations of the project's practices in transcription, editing and encoding, a bibliography of material on electronic text and SGML, a set of tutorials on text encoding, and a project newsletter. The methodological transparency of the site is a joy and places it within the scholarly debate about the politics and practicalities of electronic textual editing. Showing considerable, and commendable, restraint the authors of the project's website have keep it free of extraneous graphics and the fonts and layout are easy to read. I tested it on a variety of machines including my rather antiquated home computer with a slowish modem and navigation remained quick and reliable; on a fast computer movement was virtually instantaneous1. Also rapid was the response to an email I sent asking for specific information needed for this review.
  6. The catalogues, methodological information and encoding tutorials can be accessed without payment but only subscribers can access the texts and the contextual material within Renaissance Women Online. Individual subscribers pay US$100 per year (approximately UK£60) with a graduate student rate of US$50. Institutional licences are available and can be negotiated in the range US$100-1500, according to the number of users; other special rates are available for publishers and libraries. This accessible and well-designed site has much to offer anyone involved in the research or teaching of early modern women's texts. Although it will take many years to complete the project, a considerable number of previously unavailable texts have already been made available.
  7. Not quite as far advanced is the Perdita Project which was established in 1997 at Nottingham Trent University and aims to create a fully searchable Internet database guide to 16th and 17th century women's manuscripts held in collections around the world. The project is currently in the process of purchasing microfilms of approximately 400 manuscripts which will form the basis of the information provided on the database. Each entry on the database will include a biographical article on the writer or compiler of the manuscript, a bibliographical article on the manuscript, a physical description of the manuscript (including binding, collation, and watermarks) and an outline of the contents, including search keywords. This has enormous potential for those working on early modern women's writing but, as yet, the information available is too limited to do more than give a sample of what is to come.
  8. At the time of writing the site contains just 7 sample entries. These vary in completeness and approach, but do provide a taste of what is planned. Included are a biography of the author of Constance Fowler's Poetic Miscellany, an article describing the contents of the Songbook of Lady Margaret Wemyss and an index to the recipes and major ingredients included in Margaret Mann's cookery manuscript. Each is carefully written and accurate and it is a rare pleasure to find such error-free prose on an Internet site. I was able to print several pages of entries and other information without difficulty.
  9. The Perdita Project site also contains information on scholarly seminars and meetings on the subject of women's manuscripts. The project team are involved in developing appropriate standards for the description of manuscripts and in the application of SGML encoding to the task, and clearly wish to engage with others working in this relatively new field. My email request for specific information was answered within 24 hours. As it stands the site is clear and easy to navigate but it will be some time before the body of data is sufficient to make this a viable research tool.


1. Most of my tests of the sites were conducted on two computers. The first was an elderly IBM 486 processor clocked at 133 Mhz and running Microsoft Windows 3.1 with 20 MB RAM. The connection to the Internet was via a 14.4kbps modem to a dial-up Internet Service Provider. The second machine had a much more recent Celeron processor running Microsoft Windows 98 with 64 MB RAM and a 10MB Ethernet connection to the Internet via my university's Local Area Network. While the Celeron was predictably faster, both sites were quite usable on the older equipment. The sites are on different continents but I could detect no difference in responsiveness at different times of the day.

© 1998-, Lisa Hopkins(Editor, EMLS).