English Professor Applies 21st-Century Tools to 19th-Century Books to Examine Collective Biographies of Women

May 01, 2013

For centuries, collective biographies were a big hit in the publishing world. These books were each comprised of several short biographies, and there was a volume for every taste.

Want something tawdry? Try the 1853 collective biography “Romantic Incidents in the Lives of the Queens of England,” which profiled rulers and their consorts. A more refined reader may have preferred “Distinguished Women Writers,” which included biographies of authors such as Charlotte Brontë.

A surprisingly large and diverse subset of the books focused on women: There were collective biographies of heroic women, criminal women, royal women and many others. To Alison Booth, an English professor in the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences, the way these biographies of women were put together – everything from their narrative structure to the specific language used – says something important about the way women were collectively regarded and described.

With the aid of many research assistants over the years, Booth has been cataloging and studying collective biographies of women, compiling an online bibliography of all such books published in English between 1830 and 1950 and using them as the basis for a digital humanities project called Collective Biographies of Women

Now, the American Council of Learned Societies, or ACLS, has awarded Booth a Digital Innovation Fellowship to develop a digital tool for analyzing these works and to write a new book that relates digital studies of this genre to the representation of biographies in networks, including social media and online databases.

Booth analyzes the volumes using “prosopography,” or the study of how multiple biographical narratives share a common shape and similar characteristics. This summer she will consult with fellow prosopographers at Oxford University and King’s College, London, and introduce the related concept, documentary social networks, at the Digital Humanities 2013 conference,

“There was a special argument being made when they chose women for these books, a rhetorical motive for pulling together various roles for women and reshaping the way lives could be told,” she said. Her project is a model for digital analysis of social networks created by printed books.

Booth has been researching collective biographies of women since the mid-1990s, and is no stranger to digital humanities projects. She began by creating an annotated bibliography of all of the collective biographies of women, which has since grown to 1,271 books encompassing more than 13,000 biographies, a comprehensive account of the genre. In 2004, she published “How to Make It As a Woman: Collective Biographical History From Victoria to the Present.”

In 2008, with help from the Scholars’ Lab in the University of Virginia Library, she expanded The Collective Biographies of Women project to stretch beyond a website recovering records of a forgotten genre of published books to include the study of their content and form. With the help of a pair of fellowships from IATH, she continued to grow the project by including profiles of featured subjects, a “Pop Chart” to compare the most renowned women, and other information.

Now Booth plans to grow the project further. With help from IATH, she has developed an XML markup schema called Biographical Elements and Structure Schema, or BESS, which a team of editors uses to outline and compare versions of biographies in certain cohorts of female types. The result will be a searchable database of textual elements that could prove a powerful tool for future scholars.  

For example, the 1880 book “The Heroism of Christian Women of Our Own Time” contained a biography of Sister Dora, a famous nurse. The 11th paragraph of her portion of the volume included this passage: “Her enthusiasm and spirit of adventure were first thoroughly moved by Florence Nightingale's heroic work during the Crimean War.”

Using traditional methods, a scholar researching Sister Dora – or Florence Nightingale, or the narrative structure of collective biographies in general – might happen to come across the passage and mark it for future reference. But using BESS, Booth captured and coded the description:  




<type>analogy to other woman,



<p>Emulation of Florence

Nightingale. (AB)</p>



The code above essentially says: In the 11th paragraph of this volume, there’s an analogy to another woman, and that woman is Florence Nightingale.

Now, using the database and search tool that Booth is developing with the ACLS grant, a scholar could instantaneously search across all of the collective biographies of Sister Dora, looking for elements in the text: comparisons with Florence Nightingale; what kinds of comparisons to other women were common in lives of nurses and reformers like Sister Dora, or in other types of biographies and collections; where such comparisons fall in the course of the 20 versions of one woman’s life or in the narratives collected in one book; and other possible combinations.

“It really opens up a lot of new avenues of exploration,” Booth said. Narrative theorists have only begun to use computers to profile a genre, and nonfiction is relatively unexplored.

So far, Booth and the graduate students she works with have coded biographies in books that include Sister Dora or Lola Montez, a 19th-century Irish-born adventuress, dancer, actress and reformer, Victorian figures who never associate with each other in one book. The fellowship will allow her to expand the project to include English novelist Frances Trollope, astronomer Caroline Herschel, Cleopatra, and French Revolutionary figure Charlotte Corday. Booth said she also plans to update the website design and begin work on a new book, tentatively titled “Facebooks: Prosopographies in Print and Online.”

With collaborators, she plans to apply for additional funding to create a searchable database of narrative elements that could include all the 13,000 biographies in the complete bibliography.

The American Council of Learned Societies, a private, nonprofit federation of 71 national scholarly organizations, is the pre-eminent representative of American scholarship in the humanities and related social sciences.

Booth is among seven fellows selected by the ACLS this year, and will spend the 2014 calendar year working on the project.

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