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THE SOURCE ~ Fall/Winter 1996

Victorian Women Writers ProjectVictorian Woman Writers Project Makes Rare Works Universally Accessible

Since Indiana University Libraries began publishing the Victorian Women Writers Project on the World Wide Web in September 1995, a select group of seventeen late-19th century British women writers are receiving more exposure now than they ever garnered from their contemporaries--or even from current students of Victorian literature.

Featuring the works of British women from the Victorian period (1830-1910), the Victorian Women Writers Project originated in the spring of 1995. Since this time, "various authors' files have been accessed 100-300 times for any given work," says IU Librarian Perry Willett, general editor of the Victorian Women Writers Project (VWWP). Many of the works that appear in the VWWP are not owned by IU. In the bibliography first proposed for the VWWP, Willett was surprised to find that IU only had about half of the works in its collections. "And the Libraries' collections from this period are among the best in the country," Willett notes.

Willett recognized the usefulness of creating a specialized collection accessible through the Internet. The works are now available universally. "You don't have to travel to libraries to see half of what you want," Willett says. "It's all together in one place."

Serendipity surely played a part when undergraduate English major Felix Jung contacted IU's Library Electronic Text Resource Service (LETRS) about the possibility of helping to update the Chadwyck-Healey English Poetry Full Text Database. When Willett explained that the database was produced by a commercial publisher and not IU, Jung asked what he could do to help IU develop its own database of authors not represented in other collections.

"We thought it would be a great opportunity for us to get involved in producing electronic texts," says Willett. Working with English professor Donald Gray, editor of the journal Victorian Studies, Willett and Jung developed an initial list of writers to include in the project. "We were looking for writers who were not considered part of the canon, but who may have received some attention lately," Willett explains. "Scholars are reviewing previously overlooked writers and examining work that has been ignored. A lot of attention has been focused on women writers of this period."

They identified five writers to start with: Louisa Bevington, Amy Levy, Eliza Keary, Maud Keary, and Dollie Radford. Willett began locating copies of the authors' works in order to begin the physical process of digitizing the literature. Using Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) guidelines, which adapt Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) rules to humanities texts, Jung transcribed and encoded the text, proofread it and printed a hard copy for Willett to review.

Because many of these authors wrote in a wide range of genres, Willett decided not to limit the collection to poetry only. "I think it's more interesting to have a variety of works available to see how the author thought and wrote about different things throughout her career," he says. The collection currently includes works by the initial five authors, plus Mathilde Blind, Ada Cambridge, Caroline Clive, Louise Imogen Guiney, Caroline Norton, Helen Taylor, and others.

Obtaining copies of the works was sometimes a challenge. Although some of the writers were popular in their lifetimes and saw their works in circulation, not many libraries collected these works systematically, Willett explains. "We have received many items through inter-library loan, but some items are only available in rare book libraries that don't lend their materials. Some libraries have been kind enough to photocopy requested materials for free. However, others will not permit photocopying because the materials are too fragile."

Creating electronic texts is a complex process, Willett says. To ensure that the VWWP continues as an ongoing project, he hopes to find funding for someone to produce more texts, as Jung did. Before he graduated in December 1995 with a B.A. in English, Jung's proposal to establish the VWWP as an 8-hour internship opportunity for English majors was approved by IU's English department.

"Seeing the enthusiasm this project has generated has been very rewarding," Willett says. "Whether they're interested in poetry, electronic texts, publishing on the Web, preservation--whatever aspect they're interested in--people from the English Department, University Computing Services, LETRS, and the IUB Library have come together to work on this." Willett regularly posts project updates to the ETEXTCTR listserv for people working with electronic texts and the VICTORIA listserv for Victorian literature enthusiasts and has invited scholars at other institutions to contribute to the project.

"A strength of the Internet is that it allows for remote collaborations. I think this kind of work will be an important source of publications in the future," Willett says. "Scholars and librarians need to see themselves not as passive consumers, but as active producers, and take advantage of opportunities to produce texts they want, rather than wait for someone else to do it. I think publishing on the Web is the future, and being part of that is very exciting."

Victorian Women Writers Project: http://www.indiana.edu/~letrs/vwwp

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Last updated: December 2, 1996
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