Databases in Context: Transnational Compilations, and Networks of Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present

July 18, 2013, 08:30 | Short Paper, Embassy Regents E


In the 1990s, databases began to expand the potential of quantitative approaches to create new connections between women, their writings, critics, readers and nations. However, in my research on an overlooked reference genre in women’s literary history, compilations — of biographies, bibliographies, and selected works of women, initially as (in)famous women in history, then as learned women and writers — I discovered that most databases enhance rather than transform the national narratives they have inherited, with a few important exceptions. Those national narratives became evident as I traced the development over the past 600 years of over a 100 compilations, a highly coherent, dynamic genre that began with Boccaccio’s Famous Women (1375), and gradually spread in waves from Italy to France, England, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Russia, the United States, and many smaller nations, initially as manuscripts, later as books, in the form of anthologies, biographies, bibliographies, treatises, and literary histories, and now as databases. Despite their quite varied generic properties, which are often hybrid, they are similar in how they function. Compilers list compilations, and rely on, compete and disagree with, and often simply borrow from their predecessors’ work not only nationally, which we would expect, but transnationally — features that make the genre cohere over centuries across national and linguistic boundaries. A comparative, historical survey of compilations reveals that women’s literary history is fundamentally relational, between nations (Hoogenboom, 2013). My project thus situates digital and quantitative scholarship on women in a long historical continuum that invites deeper reflection on the quantitative methods and assumptions underlying digital scholarship on women, and what Ann Blair terms our historically shared “info-lust” (Blair, 2010).

The national limitations of existing databases on women writers, and opportunities to question priorities and structures that reflect the nationalist, canonical narratives of literary histories, are apparent from some recent quantitative papers. Women’s writings remain underrepresented in textual and linguistic corpora, and thus in data mining, despite evidence that in some countries, at certain periods, women were writing more than men (for example, England from 1800 to 1830 (Garside et al., 2000), and Australia since 1990 (Bode, 2012)). In one project on data mining gender differences in French literature, the researchers note that, “The female corpus was assembled first, due to the more limited digital collection of women's writing at our disposal” (Argamon et al., 2009). Among researchers, Nowviskie notes the apparent paucity of women engaged in data mining, which may have causal connections with the lack of quantitative literary research on women’s texts (Nowviskie, 2012). Women’s writings raise questions about the representativeness of Franco Moretti’s project on distant reading, and suggest that book history and bibliographic studies remain central to quantitative projects (Moretti, 2000; Trumpener, 2009).

Two innovative databases, the Orlando Project and WomenWriters, move beyond the traditional categories of poetry, prose fiction, and national literatures, to open national narratives to other genres and writers, and include nations other than the traditional cultural empires of France and England in transnational literary histories. My research on European and American compilations and Russian women writers uses an international database, WomenWriters, which maps the national and international networks of the reception of women writers throughout Europe before 1900 to join traditional humanities and digital scholarship to illustrate new narratives of European women’s literary history. In its historical and geographical sweep, this project illuminates other networks beyond the cultural empires of Europe by integrating small nations, Western with Eastern Europe and Russia, and the U.S. This is also an umbrella project for smaller independent national databases that expands access to the resources and practices of digital humanities for women from diverse countries.

WomenWriters, run by New approaches to European Women Writers (NEWW, 2001-), is a unique international database stored and developed at Huygens ING of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). WomenWriters uses data fields to link the relations between women and works through readers’ reception, nationally and internationally in many countries large and small to fundamentally reassess the influence of women as writers as broadly as possible. The database contains over 4,000 women writers, 12,000 works, and 22,000 receptions, found in such large-scale sources as library catalogs, translations, the periodical press, and compilations, together with memoirs, letters, archives, and so on. The project was awarded a European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) networking grant (400,000€, 2009-13) and COST Action IS0901 “Women Writers In History” has over 120 participants from 25 European Union countries, as well as myself (in Working Group 3, on sources) and others from the United States and other non-EU countries (http://www.costwwih.net/home). In December 2012, NEWW and Huygens ING received a grant for 2013 from CLARINS-NL to upgrade the database to a Virtual Research Environment (VRE) running on REST data services, which Huygens developed to map the republic of letters (Huygens, Oxford, and Stanford). It will include faceted searches to dynamically visualize networks and trees in interactive timelines or geographical maps, and statistical analysis and charting to map reception networks and topoi. This upgrade will also establish connectivity with five other European databases.


My sample maps for both select compilations and select Russian women writers use a preliminary VRE with new data fields that can show quantitative data geographically and over time of transnational reception of women writers, their biographies, and their texts. Rather than rely on a single approach, the combined methodologies of book history, bibliography, national expertise, and quantitative methods of WomenWriters maximize the potential national and transnational influence of women writers. Methodologically, quantitative work on Russian women writers is an instructive case study because, aside from expanding corpora to include women’s writings from smaller nations, Franco Moretti (1998) shows that Russia is, like most nations, an importer of literature, but is exceptional in the amount it imported (over 80%).

WomenWriters has begun to test the systematic input of select contents of compilations of women writers from before 1900, beginning with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French compilations, some of which found their way to England, Germany, and Russia. Since compilers often reference and borrow material from earlier compilations, this is an especially coherent way to track over time the presence and absence of writers together with the kinds of biographical reception material about them. These compilations can then be compared with national dictionaries, encyclopedias, and literary histories of writers on a larger scale to trace the national inclusion, exclusion, and changing reception topoi of women writers over time. I have done this selectively manually, comparing Russian compilations of women with a handful of dictionaries, encyclopedias, and literary histories for Russian literature (Hoogenboom, 2008), and will present select data visually.

My national research area of Russia expands the reception networks for European women substantially because Russia had many women writers and was among the biggest importers of foreign literature in translation and in the original languages. Currently, WomenWriters contains the only database collection of Russian women writers, who were very active translators. Using compilations, we have input around 500 out of about 1,400 Russian women authors. We are also inputting the Russian reception of George Sand (1804-76), who at present is a central node in WomenWriters because the database began as a Dutch-French project and the director, Suzan van Dijk, is a George Sand scholar (Van Dijk, 2001). Sand was a central node in European networks of women writers and readers, especially for Russians, whose enthusiasm can be measured in the number and speed of translations, many by women, in comparison with other nations. Sand’s predecessor on the international stage, Stéphanie-Félicité, Madame la Comtesse de Genlis (1746-1830), is also a node for Russia’s connectedness to European literature in an earlier era. Women’s hidden role as translators can slowly be made more visible in Russia and the many other nations that depended heavily on them for their reading. Thus as the database grows, it will be able to show significant, hitherto unseen, international connections and networks for such other international writers as Jeanne Leprince de Beaumont, Comtesse Dash and Ouida not only in literature, but also in, for example, pedagogy, religion, politics, and history.


In anticipation of VRE maps and timelines later this year, the following links use the tree tool, the only data tool in the current version of WomenWriters to show an author’s position as a node between predecessors and followers. In Russia, Akhmatova was a translator and publisher of a series of over 300 translated novels and Khvoshchinskaia was the most productive and respected woman writer of the second half of the nineteenth century, and the most highly paid writer by the serious literary journals after Ivan Turgenev and Lev Tolstoy in the 1870s; both women translated novels by Sand and many others.


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