Case Studies

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

Collective Biographies of Women is an unusual digital humanities project in both aims and methods. We offer a bibliographic database and narrative markup of chapter-length biographies of women along with ways to discover networks of historical women in the overlapping tables of contents of these books. CBW demonstrates ways to draw upon quantitative and qualitative data in a well-documented corpus of printed text. Mid-range reading using the BESS schema in stand-aside XML documents tagged to paragraphs (not words or sentences) may be compared and contrasted with other methods of measuring recurrence and variation in digitized narratives, whether fiction or nonfiction.

Case studies show further research into thematically related texts in CBW: by an individual person; a social identity; the networks and narratives associated with one book. The studies model potential further research by our team or others.

Alison Booth’s 2004 book, How to Make It as a Woman, called attention to collective biography (sometimes known as prosopography) and documented the hundreds of English-language books that collected three or more chapter-length biographies of women (excluding most reference works). This is a forgotten trove of narratives about many kinds of women designed for a general audience. The book project’s exhaustive, annotated bibliography led to the first online site built by E-text Center and Scholars’ Lab staff at University of Virginia: See the “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. In building a database, the values tagged as chapter titles were used to generate person records as well, with further editorial work to eliminate duplication (such as “Joan of Arc,” “Jeanne d’Arc,” and “The Maid of Orleans”) and to consolidate alternative names in a single numbered person record).

Each short biography in our prosopographical volumes might be said to represent--and retrieve--a woman. Much of the value of CBW is based on this transformation of tables of contents into “documentary social networks.” 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 further research on individual women’s lives with new insight and commitment.

Biographical Elements and Structure Schema, or BESS, is a textual markup protocol in XML, applied by skilled readers in a “mid-range reading” process to a limited corpus of TEI documents of books in the bibliography. BESS markup of chapters is then linked to the chapter records in the database, producing a fully integrated picture of the collection for prospective analyses.

These case studies display 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. Our analysis of Women Novelists of Queen Victoria’s Reign (1897), presented in an interactive StoryMap, draws out the connections existent between the contributors and subjects of a late-19th-century volume that has recently garnered attention as an early work of feminist criticism. Based on our careful cleaning of the records of African American persons as subjects of the texts in CBW, we matched their records with Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC) creating pathways between that resource and the rare records captured in volumes listed in CBW, for example, Ada B. Thoms, nurse, who wrote or was featured in two collections of African American nurses.

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 Ted Underwood or Andrew Piper. 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 in CBW’s relational database is a set of relations among a chapter-length biography of a woman in its particular order in the table of contents of a collection, and the relation of that female biographical subject (“person”) to that chapter-bio and all the other chapters in which she is a subject. So, a unique person record, a unique (short) biography record, and a unique book record stand in searchable relation to the entire set of record IDs for persons, chapters, and volumes. To highlight the relations among these persons and texts, we developed typologies, and editorial teams have assigned these types to the persons, biographies, and collections. Thus, a user can locate royalty, English, in collections that solely narrative the lives of English queens. As we work with the database, we have added biographical information such as birth and death dates, bibliographical information, and links to such sources as OCLC WorldCat (tracing editions and library holdings), HathiTrust (digitized text where available), and SNAC (for selected matches with sources of unpublished materials related to persons in CBW). 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: