Session 6A: Digitizing Romanticism

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6A. Digitizing Romanticism

Special Session: Neil Fraistat (Maryland)
These presentations were mounted on the Romantic Circles website 1 week before the conference
Theresa M. Kelley (Texas-Austin) and Richard Sha (American): "The Sister Arts go Digital: The Romantic Circles Art Gallery"
Emma Clery (Sheffield Hallam): "The Corvey Project Website: Collaborative Excavation of the Professional Woman Writer 1790-1840"
Thomas Crochunis (Brown) and Michael Eberle-Sinatra (Oxford): "Editing Electronically Women Playwrights of the Romantic Period"
Kyle Grimes (Alabama): "Beyond the Paper Chase: A Comprehensive Online Romantics Bibliography"

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The Corvey Project Website: Collaborative Excavation of the Professional Woman Writer 1790-1840
[complete paper]
Emma Clery
Sheffield Hallam

The Corvey Project at Sheffield Hallam University was founded in 1995, with a grant from the British Academy, as a group project investigating women's writing of the romantic era. Its defining aim was to 'map' women's writing using the unique resource of the CME (Corvey Microfiche Edition), and to disseminate the findings by means of digital technology. The textual base is a collection of 962 female-authored works in English found in the belles-lettres section of the Corvey Library, in Germany. There are many rare works included, and the collection is especially interesting for its holdings in popular fiction, material not found in great quantity in the great public and university libraries. Taken together, the collection provides a window onto unfamiliar yet culturally central aspects of print culture, and in particular enables us to throw light on the careers of more than 300 women writers, half of whom cannot be found in current biographical dictionaries.

At this stage, digital technology is not being used to provide digitized versions of the texts themselves. Although this will probably come, the first stage of work has been devoted to preparing a 'front-end' or gateway to the material in the collection, to enable scholars and students to navigate the unfamiliar landscape. We have prepared a full and corrected version of the catalogue, which in turn will form the basis of a database, a hypertext 'encyclopedia' of women's writing, which will be open to contributions from international scholars and continually expanding. This includes a whole variety of contextual documents, bibliographical and bibliographical information and interpretative essays eg synopses, early reviews, reading lists, accounts of reception and lines of influence, and so on. There will be a search mechanism to identify interesting features of individual texts through a system of keyword classifications. There is also a pedagogical facet to the project, through study units which enable undergraduates to learn research skills by 'adopting' authors from the collection, and producing a portfolio of documents, bibliography and critical interpretation to add to the database.

All of this is simply to describe the nature of the Corvey Project. There are of course many issues of methodology and theory raised by the enterprise. One which has particularly exercised me, as one of two research fellows appointed to work on the Project full time, has been finding a means to focus our research on the texts which would draw attention to the physical and historical nature of the original library. There is an obvious tendency in digital-based research to 'sublime' the texts, to detach them from their histories as objects and commodities. Ease of access can come at the expense of the productive resistance to assimilation provided by the materiality of the original texts and the signs of their provenance. Although there is no surviving documentation of the collecting policy, the princely library at Corvey, with its astonishingly indiscriminate itself provides fascinating evidence of forms of literary reception and bibliomania in a state of transition. I have reflected on this in an essay included in the Website, entitled 'The Sacred and Profane Library'.

This emphasis on the idiosyncratic contours of the collection has informed our work on the database. Although the ultimate aim is to provide the maximum amount of information as well as interpretation around all the work in the collection, we have chosen, in the second phase of work, to narrow the main 'map' of our research to the work of the 20 best-represented female writers in the collection ie those with 10 or more works in the Corvey belles-lettres section. The result of this relatively random process of selection has been an interesting mixture of semi-canonical and entirely obscure authors, with texts in all genres, but with the novel predominating. The thinking behind this research, along with a number of critical issues, is discussed in 'An Account of the Second Phase' on the Website. Again, one priority has been to draw attention to the partial and material nature of the source of our texts: the work by the 20 authors is a good representation of the peculiar strengths of the collection, its chronological span, and the blend of familiarity and non-recognition which is one of the most salutary effects of Corvey. By foregrounding in such ways the eccentricity of the Corvey holdings, we again, I believe, usefully oppose the universalising tendency of digital resources, sustained by dreams of 'absolute' knowledge, towards seamless functional delivery of facts or texts.

The 'collaborative excavation' in the title of the paper, refers to a public 'launch' of the Website as an ongoing refereed digital publication. We have recently set up an editorial board, including many eminent British and North American scholars in the area, which will guarantee the standards of the material included in the database. This is an experiment with a new 'porous' model of globalised collaborative research which should be of general interest. Another aspect generally relevant to the Corvey Website, and of many openly accessible academic digital resources, is the possibility, indeed the existing reality they present, of a university without walls. This is something that has particularly arisen for us out of the 'Adopt an Author' undergraduate scheme, where students, most of whom will not continue in academia beyond BA level, nevertheless are able to make themselves 'specialists' in a neglected area of romantic period print culture, with often impressive results, and are able to have a permanent stake in a major scholarly Project by their contributions to the Website. The appetite for this type of excavatory research shown by the students is I believe indicative of an interest within the wider culture: the success of Virago and Pandora Press reprints is another indication of it. There is enormous potential for breaking down the barriers separating specialised scholarship from the educated public at large, and I hope this is something to which can be addressed in what promises to be a valuable conference session.

The address of the Corvey Website is:

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Last updated May 31, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell