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Using Digital Resources for the Study of English Catholic Women Writers
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Over the past forty years, academics and enthusiasts have produced printed work aimed at bringing women writers into the canon; more recently, they have produced promising new digital resources. Even as scholarship on English Catholic women of the long eighteenth century has lagged somewhat behind the work on many other women from this era, it stands to benefit a great deal from the rapid developments in digital resources devoted to English Catholic women particularly or to broader categories of early modern women writers. This review describes several digital resources of use to scholars working on women and English Catholicism. It celebrates the dynamic nature of these online projects, acknowledges their pitfalls, critically assesses their usability, and weighs the ease with which users can contribute to them.

Given the nature of digital projects, many of which are funded on a limited basis for a fixed time, it is worth noting that no individual resource is likely to provide searchability for all the needed biographical features of a woman writer’s life: her places of birth, death, and residence; career; marital status; motherhood; sexual orientation; texts; generic categories; political affiliations; or religious affiliations. This last category will be of particular interest to readers of this issue: how do we identify women of a particular confession in existing online resources? Very few resources make searching by religious affiliation available and some do not even allow keyword searches, which limits them considerably. A cross-platform database that allows for searching between existing web-based tools would be a welcome development. One such search tool for historical resources is Connected Histories: British History Sources, 1500-1900. Researchers at the Universities of Sheffield and Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom worked in partnership with the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), London, and Jisc to deliver a search platform that draws on fourteen major web resources—including the Old Bailey Online and British History Online—containing over 412 million words and 469,000 publications. The platform allows existing tools to retain their specialized focus. A simple author, date, or keyword search enables researchers to pull results from multiple resources using a single search platform. An equivalent resource for literary data would be a boon to the field.

Until such a tool is developed, those interested in studying English Catholic women writers might begin with the subscription-based Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) to generate a list of authors. The ODNB has expanded its number of entries for women writers in recent years and includes confessional search functionality. Data generated using the ODNB can then be deployed to find web resources that, in turn, hold a wealth of material: full editions of women’s texts; digital facsimiles and textbases of manuscripts and printed books; and a range of bibliographical articles about women writers, many of whom have received little scholarly attention and whose texts have much to teach us.

Subscription-Based Textbases and Biographical Resources

Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) contain many works by women, but as they are familiar to many readers, they will not be detailed here. It should be noted that neither have confession search functionality, but the producers of ECCO are considering adding this in future. EEBO Interactions, an innovative site that allowed users to add information to a given text, including an author’s confessional identity, has unfortunately been discontinued. The Brown Women Writers Project and its associated Renaissance Women Online, which publish or identify the works of women writers, are valuable resources for those interested in Catholic women writers, but as these have recently been discussed in this journal, they will not be revisited here. Perdita Manuscripts, 1500-1700, with its hundreds of digital facsimiles of manuscripts written by women, will interest scholars of both the early modern period and the long eighteenth century. It is a well-established online resource available by subscription, and it offers searching by name, place, date, language, genre, and first lines of poetry and prose, which is especially useful for untitled works. Despite its richly developed search functions, Perdita Manuscripts does not yet allow for confessional searching. Searches return brief biographical entries and bibliographies, and in some cases digitized images...

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