Women and the Archives

Review: International Summer School in Mainz, Germany (October 2019, “Reflections on Code”)

#digitalhumanities: As a newbie to digital humanities (or rather: DH, as I learned; DH is very much about abbreviations), I started my week at the International Summer School at the Academy of Sciences and Literature in Mainz on October 8, 2019. Two weeks earlier, I had already been to a Dariah workshop @IEG in Mainz, so Mainz really stood out to me as the place to be when it came to DH in Germany. It hadn’t been easy to find practice-oriented opportunities for a new DH fan. During my studies @FAU in Erlangen, I had read a couple of theoretical articles about the digital humanities and what they can do, how they change the field of literary studies, and how we can combine research endeavors in the humanities with computer-based tools that support them or even raise new questions altogether. During the two workshops, and especially the ISS, I dived into some really fun tools such as Git, Animexgeo, Neo4j, app.rawgraph.io, … and many more.

Several presenters guided us through a wide range of immensely fascinating topics and recent issues of DH and its tools. The one I would like to discuss in more detail is Martin Prell’s talk about ‘Historical sources of women in the Digital Humanities – overview and automated text analysis.’ Why this topic? Well, first of all, for someone only recently exposed to DH practices, it was a presentation that I could easily follow. Also, the idea of raising gender as a category and drawing attention to women in the archives resonated with me and the project that Katrin and I are working on. Specializing in NLP (Natural Language Processing – remember, the abbreviations, very important), Martin Prell analyzes letters of pietist Erdmuthe Benigna using a range of DH tools. Additionally, he critically examined gender issues in the digital humanities. Referencing Mark Hall’s talk @DHd2019, Prell observed that “DH is the Study of dead Dudes.” Women are not the major center of attention when it comes to research on archival material and they are hardly mentioned in DH projects presented at Dhd conferences. Women are thus marginalized and erased in public discourse, an ongoing process that is reinforced by the digital humanities. Even if DH researchers may not actively focus on male subjects, DH projects work with texts that are already available in a digital format. Women’s archival material may not be as accessible. Restrictions of access can have many reasons, such as:

  • women’s documents were not preserved in the archives due to gendered notions of what is worth being archived
  • documents are often not available in digital form or
  • researchers cannot find them in an online search as women’s archival material may be stored together with the items of their husbands.

The result is a cognitive bias. DH projects usually start with data that is already digitized. Hence, DH projects study mostly male subjects.

Are all DH projects really only about dead dudes? Well, no, obviously not. The biennial “Women’s History in the Digital World” taking place in the Anglo-American sphere is a conference specifically drawing attention to women. Among others, topics may include common DH tools such as network analysis, while other projects focus on gender-specific issues such as mapping of second wave of feminism. There is more to know: The Rose’s List, also called Women’s & Gender History DH list, was started by Professor Shelley Rose from Ohio and offers an interactive open access list of digital humanities projects about womenthat is interactive. Women’s Early Modern Letters Online (WEMLO) is an ongoing large-scale DH project that invites contributions by online users. Prell also mentioned more gender research options such as the gender package of R.

So what’s the take-away in the end: If you work on fascinating topics about women and the archives (and what research on women and archives wouldn’t be fascinating?), share your knowledge and make your material and results accessible to others. Use, for instance, a .csv export option to allow for your data to be used for other projects. Coming from a traditional training in American literary studies, I know how much academia is all about protecting your work, your data, your…whatsoever. Sharing is tough, I know. Questions about copyright, time management, and technological resources remain. Of course, there is a lot more to learn about coding, statistics, algorithms, tools, version control systems,… – just to name a few areas. There are many historical sources on women that have not yet been digitized or even found. Coming from queer and gender studies, I am familiar with the argument of the ‘empty archive.’ However, I think it is too easy to use this argument as an excuse. Scholars as well as non-scholars working with or being interested in archival material can actively and consciously shift their focus to women and members of minorities by making an effort to investigate the material that is not already there to digest digitally. So: Go to the archives and dig deep or. Time spent at archives is valuably (and costly), I know, but risk a glance at the sources contributed by women and minorities or attributed to the (white) men around them: it’ll be worth it.

We are currently working on selecting US-American archival material on gossip of the nineteenth century. For our Cushmania collection, we have started to set up a database for people, events, locations, and written documents that revolve around the circulation of uncertain knowledge about Charlotte Cushman, a nineteenth-century US-American actress who was also widely known across the Atlantic. The Omeka-based database aims at storing original documents, transcriptions, metadata, and relationships. (Soon-ish, we may even start an interdisciplarycollaboration with the Computer Science Department to help visualize our research outcomes better. Fingers crossed! Exciting, things are happening.)

Thank you ISS, ADW, organizers, and presenters! (If you have made it this far and have a twitter account, go follow them on Twitter to keep up with their work). A shout-out also to Katrin and the DFG for making this possible money-wise.

Hope to come back soon here and speak about the progress of our project,


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