Case Studies

These case studies present examples of research you can pursue in this database.

The particular constellation of materials and methods found in Collective Biographies of Women is unusual even for researchers who are seasoned in the methods of digital humanities. It might seem straightforward to say that we offer a bibliographic database and narrative markup of chapter-length biographies of women, yet CBW is much more than that, and is profoundly innovative in the fluidity with which it enables insights based both on qualitative and quantitative analysis. Thus we offer CBW case studies as models for researchers and students who come to this project in hopes of finding new insights about their own research.

Until Alison Booth’s 2004 How to Make It as a Woman, little attention had been paid to the genre of collective biography (sometimes known as prosopography), in which three or more chapter-length biographies of individual women are collected into a single published volume. Her research on collective biography for the book also yielded an exhaustive, annotated bibliography. This was the source of the first CBW site,, which is still foundational to this site and is linked as “bibliography” in the persistent menu at the top of every CBW page. That bibliography included chapter titles that often were identical to the names of the woman chronicled within. This seemingly insignificant biographical naming convention enabled the technical wizards of the University of Virginia’s Scholars’ Lab and the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities to convert chapter titles from their Word document bibliography home into a database table that redesignated those women’s names as person records. (Find more on this data structure below.)

Each of the chapter-length biographies embedded in our prosopographical volumes thus might be said to represent--and retrieve--a woman. Much of the value of CBW is based on this ground-breaking insight, which is both made possible and potentially obscured by the rationalizing digital transformation of chapter titles into a database table of person records. In this collaboration between scholar and computer scientists, a traditional bibliography becomes a database. A database of persons then becomes a source of previously unavailable biographical and literary information, as quantitative patterns emerge in the swaths of information attached digitally to those records. Scholarly researchers can use these patterns to return to the individual women’s lives with new insight and commitment.

The interplay between literary criticism and digitization could have stopped there and been recognized as a significant contribution to the history and criticism of women’s biography, but CBW offers more. Booth’s BESS is a textual markup protocol, encoded in the form of an XML schema and then applied by skilled readers in a “mid-range reading” process to a limited corpus of full texts of chapter-bios. BESS markup of chapters is then linked to the chapter records in the database. Here again, the digitization and normalization might seem to wipe idiosyncrasy and nuance from the written record of women. But instead, the exercise works to reveal exactly what it might be expected to hide. For feminist narrative theorists, especially, the digitally assisted process of mid-range markup yields specific observations that complicate generalized narratives of female experience.

These case studies, inspired by Booth’s scholarship and collaborations with the developers of UVa’s digital humanities organizations, acknowledge that the material found in CBW has been rationalized and normalized in a way that might at first seem to efface the differences among the women so encapsulated. And yet the result of that process of rationalization, as you will see, is new, nuanced, and highly individualized perceptions of historical women. In the case of Frances Trollope, a woman much maligned for her insulting satire of American life and labelled merely as the mother of a famous man, CBW’s narratological markup of her biographies reveals biographers’ perceptions of her as deserving of literary critical attention. In our African American cohort, the reliably documented stalwarts of history sit alongside an impressive set of women chronicled nowhere else, yet ripe for scholarly investigation. And in the cohort of medical women, linked across time and space by their vocational commitment, we see not only stereotypically feminine compassion and individual self-sacrifice, but also personal ambition and commitment to public success.

CBW’s Data

CBW’s recuperation and digital treatment of the genre of collective biographies is valuable for the historiography of women. Yet CBW is not an archive of the texts of its biography records; the digitization of the entire corpus has been beyond our scope. The sheer quantity of individual chapter-length biographies documented in our database--over 14,000 chapters distributed among more than 1,200 volumes--might imply that the full CBW dataset would be well suited for a distant-reading approach along the lines of the work of Franco Moretti or Matthew Jockers. However, several factors combine to suggest that a different digital humanities strategy--one focused on cohorts of textually-associated women and the corpora of biographies about them--is more generative of scholarly insight in the case of collective biography studies. By assembling cohorts of women who co-occur in collective volumes with the resulting corpora of their chapter-length biographies, we can model research in CBW’s materials, which lie at the intersection of database technology, XML markup, and traditional humanities scholarship. These multi-faceted materials can yield important advances in feminist biography studies.

Database Architecture

The core material of CBW--its primary data type--is the individual, chapter-length biography of a woman. Each of our >14,000 chapter-length biographies (known as chapter-bios for short) has its own document record in the database. From each chapter-bio in CBW’s database, we’ve included data about its human subject in the form of a person record. A different kind of document record, called a collection record, contains bibliographic material about each of the >1200 volumes that contain multiple chapter-bios. Although these volumes are sometimes labelled prosopography, the term we prefer is “collective biography.” Each person record, chapter-bio record, and collection record is assigned a unique identifying number, connected with relevant metadata, and stored in a database built and hosted at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities at the University of Virginia.

Thus, CBW’s datasets can be described as follows:

This data structure can be tricky to visualize because it is not quite hierarchical. Granted, a chapter-bio record could be said to be a “child of” or “within” a collection record, but person records are not within collection records even though they are within chapter-bio records. An entity relationship diagram--a common visualization tool for data architects--is one way to represent the logical relationships encoded in our database:

XML Schema and Markup