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Encoding Periodicals for the Women Writers Project: NULab Research Project

As a 2021-2022 Digital Integration Teaching Initiative Fellow I partnered with The Women Writers Project (WWP) for a research project focused on text encoding two excerpted periodical texts in the WWP’s possession: A Short Account of the Life of Elizabeth Colson, 1727 and the short story “Theresa, A Haytien Tale,” 1828 (author unknown). In approaching this project, I had a central inquiry about encoding periodicals specifically: how does one properly encode a text that’s surrounded by other ‘things’ (read: texts and other objects) on the same page? 

Image. Two pages from New-England Weekly Journal published June 19, 1927. Includes Elizabeth Colson’s account (bottom left).

Like most encoding projects, many texts traditionally encoded at the WWP are singular, long-form, and digitized copies of Like many encoding projects, most texts encoded at the WWP are singular, long-form, and digitized copies of bound texts. Periodicals, on the other hand, are short-form in structure, brimming with numerous genres, and seek different interactions with readers. In this way periodicals felt ‘noisy’ in comparison to some WWP texts due to their nature as smaller objects excerpted from a larger journal; “Theresa” had the added complication of being printed in multiple-installments and thus with multiple dates of publication. With varying amounts of data and so many textual objects coming together on the same page, I wondered what the encoding process would be like for periodicals and whether this experience could result in expanded documentation for the WWP. 

The exigence for this project was primarily exploratory; text encoding is something that I had never attempted or experienced before. As a scholar, much of my research experience deals in the ongoing development of digital archives including: data ethics and ethical use, archival description (and the politics and methods therein), and ‘background’ archival processes like metadata curation, which I attribute in part to my time with the Early Caribbean Digital Archive. I was a bit out of my element coming into this research project with the WWP because my work relied heavily on text encoding and markup. This partnership opened up the opportunity for me to broaden my knowledge about digital archives and to learn a new research skill central to the work I’ve completed in the past year: XML, guided by logics and practices extending from TEI

This research project came with a few immediate outcomes, the first being learning the basics of TEI through a series of encoder trainings organized by the WWP. Not only did learning TEI and actively applying the skills in WWP training help prepare me to work with texts in the WWP’s collection, it also (luckily) advanced my degree by positioning TEI as my second ‘language’—or, advanced research skill—for my doctoral program. If my teaching and content creation as a DITI Fellow taught me nothing else it’s that sometimes digital knowledges feel obscure because the tools and technologies we use in our digital scholarship are ever-evolving; we know something well, until we don’t! So, as I reflect in the present, the ability to show proficiency in-action and to equally show documentation of my research skills feels indispensable to my future work. And, on the whole, TEI has opened up a whole world of research questions and opportunities to explore. Many of these questions and opportunities emerged during my encoding work with the WWP. 

Reflecting on The Encoding Process 

To date, the encoding process for both “Theresa, A Haytien Tale” and the short account of Elizabeth Colson’s life is complete. Both texts are now in the proofing stage and on the route toward publication in the WWP database. 

Altogether, this research project has been a learning experience about challenging what it means to look at “the text.” In my experience, this phrase typically implies a holistic analysis of the entirety of a document; however, working with periodicals this year has necessitated clarifying this type of language to consider a specific focus on short term texts. In the case of texts like “Theresa, A Haytien Tale” and the short account of Elizabeth Colson, the text encoding process has meant confronting my desire to capture more contextual information (i.e., the entirety of the page) to better understand the rhetorical situation and positioning of the text most of interest for an encoding. Ultimately, text encoding necessitates that there will be information that we will never publish or factor into the encoding process. However, I still wonder if there are ways to integrate such levels of added context in ways that bolster, rather than infringe upon, the rhetorical impact of a text and that don’t over-complicate an XML document. 

I expect to confront this question again during my dissertation research. Since coming to NU, I’ve been dedicated to an ongoing archival and indexing project on The Brownies’ Book, a New Negro (Harlem) Renaissance-era African-American children’s periodical. All to say–periodicals are my thing. And Black studies, especially, is at the heart of my research.  My work with the WWP this past year has improved my understanding of documentation for encoding practices and has provided me with a basis for the encoding necessary for my dissertation project. I wasn’t expecting that my partnership with the WWP would encompass either–let alone both!–of my research foci, and it was an unexpected gift to have WWP Directors point me to Elizabeth Colson’s account and “Theresa, A Haytien Tale ” within the WWP’s recently acquired texts. While both texts have wildly different intents and functions, each respectively centers the perspective and interior thoughts of a (presumably Black) mixed-race ‘mulatto’ woman and Black Haitain woman during the period of TransAtlantic chattel slavery. With regard to the Colson text, there is a wealth of research that locates the importance of embedded narratives of Black people and how these narratives appear in newsprint, periodicals, diary entries and other historical texts of record. And as a work of fiction “Theresa, A Haytien Tale ” has captured scholarly attention about Early African American literature, Black female heroics, and how African Americans were discussing and paying homage to the Haitain Revolution. Although both “Theresa” and the account of Elizabeth Colson have been frequent objects of study across academic disciplines, and their presence certainly isn’t unknown, it felt necessary to assist the WWP’s mission to make these texts more visible and accessible to the public. I was happy to participate in this work. 

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