Blog Post

Interview: Alison Booth, The Collective Biographies of Women Project

Alison Booth is a Professor of English at the University of Virginia, and I first met her when she was our keynote speaker at the 2009 British Women Writers Conference that was hosted by the University of Iowa (http://www.uiowa.edu/~englgrad/bwwc/keynotes.html). 
Alison is paving the way for the possibilities available in the digital humanities, and she describes her work better than I can: "A continuing theme in my books and articles has been the reception history of authors and the construction of collective biographical histories, or prosopographies, from the reconception of a common life and a female literary tradition by George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, to the imagined community figured in monuments and representative lists such as Mount Rushmore, to literary canons and tours.
"I have persistently worked across the boundaries of period (nineteenth to twentieth centuries), nationality (particularly transatlantic Anglophone), media and audience (word-image, novel and film, celebrity and popular culture). Since 1995, my work in narrative theory has focused on life writing and the prevalent form of collections of short biographies, concentrated in my bibliography of collective biographies of women and the related book, How to Make It as a Woman (2004).  The annotated bibliography has been developed as an online site sponsored by the University of Virginia Library, and now forms part of the peer-reviewed NINES digital consortium.  In 2008 we launched a new version, and I plan to integrate this into teaching and research in digital humanities and forms of life writing. " 
I interviewed Alison about the Collective Biographies project; I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did!  Check out the Center for Liberal Arts at Virginia here (http://www.virginia.edu/cla/) and Alison's project here (http://womensbios.lib.virginia.edu/)
Bridget: Why did you choose to digitize your project?

Alison: The original bibliography, with annotations, grew too large for publication within a printed book; the press balked; and I had always known that a computer file was far better than hard copy for searching around within a bibliography, so the advantages of the online platform were obvious.  An XML file (TEI encoding standards) not only is easy to move around in and collate information, but also readily expanded, corrected, enhanced with new functions as the project evolves or software becomes available.  I was also influenced by other literary projects to begin to think of making the texts of these collections of women's lives available in digital editions; and I could see that networks of subjects lend themselves to the kinds of biographical databases that have already been created or might be invented.

Bridget: What is the value of making humanities scholarship accessible outside the university?

Alison: Biography has always had a wide public beyond scholarship, and studies of women's history likewise have an appeal to students at all levels and general readers.  Web access means that research is now accessible to anyone who can get at a computer terminal.  The flip side is that the content online should be as authoritative, imaginative, aesthetically pleasing as possible, and expertise and training help scholars supply this improved knowledge rather than just the most democratic, crowd-sourced information.

Bridget: How do you see your database facilitating more cooperative, collaborative humanities research?

Alison: I've begun to include short biographies by students and assistants, and I'd like to "farm out" the creation of short studies of individual subjects: my Featured Subject pages.  I already invite submissions of new entries to the bibliography.  I want to have peer-reviewed biographical projects linked directly to CBW.  So far this is more planned than actual.  But CBW includes links to electronic texts of the books, to library catalogues, and to other biographical sources on Features Subjects, so I design it as a portal rather than a sealed archive; and of course it's open sourced and open access.

Bridget: How do you envision the future of humanities scholarship?

Alison: This question is better answered by many others.  I do think the editing of literary texts is now best conducted online (textual variants so easily "layered"), and that the tools of research have already created very excited boom times for new-ish fields: periodical studies; publishing history.  Genre studies and stylistic studies have been transformed: you can now collated ALL of a genre within a period and confidently generalize about all kinds of data, including geographical, economic, etc. (see Franco Moretti's team on the novel).  You can also confidently describe a history of word usage and ideas, e.g. metaphors for the mind in 18th c. literature, as my colleague Brad Pasanek is doing.  Obviously there's most excitement about visualization and geo-spatial studies as well as timelines; what can be shown about archeological sites, cities, events, patterns of communication or travel.  Drama, dance, material culture (e.g. studies of costume, ceramics), and of course visual arts all can share the substance of their arts and scholarship about them in ways that really reach a broad audience.

Obviously, using digital projects as criteria for evaluation and promotion is in early stages.  It won't make any real difference to the process if traditional-style books or articles are delivered on Kindle or otherwise in digital form or on the Web.  But creation of archives, databases, or websites is still hard to measure; does it count as a book, edited collection, article?  The labor commitment is usually immense, and collaborative so hard to credit to one person (sciences have this issue anyway).  We have to turn the Titanic around on this one.  As more faculty get their hands on digital work, there will be more willingness to change the criteria.
On the question of independent scholars and CLA: the Arthur Vining Davis foundation supported the CLA courses that I taught in which h.s. English teachers explored online resources to study such matters as Dickens or postcolonial literature, and a couple of fellows worked independently to create resources for teachers.  Similarly, I know collaborate with a h.s. English teacher to design courses for her peers in summer institutes held in Charlottesville, usually on literature taught in the h.s. curriculum.  This latter effort has no digital component.  But it's an ongoing effort at service or outreach to connect university and general education.
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