Researcher Profile

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Susan Brown, PhD

University of Guelph

Harnessing the power of computers for critical literary research

The Orlando Project is a digital history of women’s writing in the British Isles. It is also an experiment in the integration of text and technology. The project contains details of more than 1,300 writers’ careers, including how writers were received, relationships with publishers, intellectual influences, friends, political activities and even illnesses.

University of Guelph digital literary historian Susan Brown, along with two colleagues and more than a hundred collaborators, used advanced research computing to encode the Orlando Project so that data can be found, sifted and reordered according to researchers’ priorities. They can, for example, see shifts in society’s understanding of ethnic or racial identity, or the relationship between childbearing and the ability to publish.

“A lot of humanities scholars are still using Microsoft Word or spread sheets to track the stages involved in this kind of work,” says Brown. “It might be the reason we don’t see a lot of large scale collaborations like the Orlando Project.”

Still, the project ¬— updated twice a year with new discoveries, writing and authors — is now being used as a model for other works of digital scholarship, The Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory among them. Brown and her team created it as a virtual research environment for scholars of our country’s literary and cultural history.

The key to this kind of collaborative research, says Brown, is a robust network for moving large amounts of data around, and 24/7 server access that lets researchers around the world shape the material on their schedule. Equally important is data management that tracks where information came from and what has been done to it, as well as data preservation so later generations of scholars can access the material.

“The future of our discipline depends on figuring out ways of enabling new kinds of research digitally,” says Brown.