Technologizing Women's Travel Writing: Issues & Implications

Miranda Beaven Remnek
Mary Skemp
Sarah Wadsworth
University Libraries
University of Minnesota
170B Wilson Library
Minneapolis, Mn 55455

Recent developments in feminist criticism and electronic text have revolutionized humanities scholarship. By decentering canonical works, they liberate marginalized writers, and provide alternative criteria for textual interpretation. A new wave of scholarship has highlighted travel narratives as rich sources for understanding women's identity. Digitization provides access to these sources, and strengthen interdisciplinary connections.

The Electronic Text Research Center at the University of Minnesota Libraries is thus engaged in a project entitled Women's Travel Writing, 1830-1930. WTW selects feminist texts not in wide circulation and encodes them to facilitate textual analysis. We focus on American travellers, but include selected European women. We emphasize Africa and Latin America, but are beginning to cover the Far East and North America, as well as certain themes (eg. texts by women naturalists).

WTW uses XML-compliant DynaWeb software to deliver TEI-encoded texts over the Web. In addition to support for research, our project has a strong teaching mission. We assist both faculty and students in learning more about digitized texts, and their potential teaching uses. There are three modes of access: 1.Basic Full-text Search; 2.Expanded (Thesaurus) Search; 3. Analytical (Metadata) Search. Our work has raised issues in three main areas: gender; language; geography.

I. Text Encoding and Gender Identity

Travel writing by women has been doubly marginalized. It has not been accorded the same value as male writing. Moreover, travel writing as a genre is marginalized. While the American literary "canon" includes travel accounts, these are narratives or fictional works by men like John Smith and Samuel Clemens. WTW provides a valuable corrective by publishing female travel narratives spanning the years 1830-1930. This period is of interest in terms of national expansion, colonialism, and new opportunities for geographical and intellectual exploration by women.

Our first phase of development has involved selection, digitization, and structural encoding. Our goal is a sample of significant texts, emphasizing those that are less accessible. The second phase involves enhancing the texts with analytical categories. These enable the user to conduct searches for thematic and cultural analysis. A user may retrieve all paragraphs that contain specific content even if they lack the keywords of a word search. Thus, a search for tags will retrieve passages dealing with women as students, whether or not the word "education" appears in the text.

Creating a taxonomy of markup categories presents a challenge. There is potential for limitless intervention in the text--a cause for unease on the part of many. The possibilities for analytical encoding are various, and subject to interpretation by encoders. Limiting the scope helps ensure consistent markup and the allocation of resources to the expansion of the archive (rather than the endless markup of a few texts). Two of the categories determined by our steering committee ("Ethnicity" and "Transportation") derive from features of travel writing. The others ("Gender Marking"and "Women's Occupations") derive from women's writing itself. Clearly, "gender" is an essential category that we use to reflect male dominance, or transgression of gender lines. Admittedly, the categories are politically- and ideologically-charged, but these four groups are likely to be of the greatest interest to most users. And since a major project goal is to help students read the texts critically and intelligently, we will have met our goal nicely if our encoding is merely suggestive. It has been noted that SGML-encoded text "has qualities of intelligence" that allow "us to focus on the problems that interest us most and hold the rest in abeyance". In the case of data tagged with categories like gender and ethnicity, this observation is doubly true.

2. Language Issues: Facilitating Undergraduate Access to Non-English Travel Sources

WTW has emphasized English-language texts. But SGML-based interpretive categories can help render foreign-language sources more accessible. Consider a text by Flora Tristan: Pérégrinations d'une paria (1833-34). In this account of travel to Peru, Tristan reminisces about her unionizing experiences. A digitized copy is available to a French civilization class which includes coverage of the worker's movement. Working class history is difficult to recreate because of the lack of sources; the material is also difficult because of textual "otherness." There are three levels of estrangement: linguistic, geographic, and historical. The first is not always problematic. But the instructor must also deal with student alienation caused by a foreign text's "other" differences (historical and geographic). These are compounded in Tristan's memoir--since she was a French woman travelling in Peru. The challenge is to decrease these differences for the American student.

We attempt this by encoding vital categories of "difference": gender, class, and politics. Parts of the text are linked to broaden the context of the theme treated. This gives students a different method to collect data. The categories become critical tools through which they study images, symbols, and stylistics. Each category used for the Tristan text is subdivided. Gender is divided into "male," "female," and "other." Class is subdivided into "privilege," "working class," "wealth" and "poverty." Politics is encoded according to references to revolution and the labor movement.

Consider a section in which Tristan describes the costume of Lima and how it functions in the daily activity of women. In Tristan's discourse, the women become an allegory of the idea of Freedom. This interpretation must be understood in the context of Tristan's own experiences as a French woman whose husband's problems have motivated her travel to Peru. And we have used details found in the text's three prefaces to elucidate her presentation of Peruvian culture and politics. The first preface is a dedication, the second a philosophical essay revealing her political thought, and the third an autobiographical essay. We have linked the prefaces and narrative to draw out the personal politics behind Tristan's text. Not used as in other WTW texts, in this narrative "Gender: women" represents the appropriation of a custom particular to women in a foreign culture as a symbol through which the author exposes her own desires and reasons for writing.

For example, in the travel section we encoded: "On doit... aire remarquer combien le costume des Liméniennes est favorable et seconde leur intelligence pour leur faire acquérir la grande liberté... dont elle jouissent." From the philosophical essay we encoded: "On a observé que le degré de civilisation auquel les diverses sociétés humaines sont parvenues a toujours été proportionné au degré d'indépendence dont y ont joui les femmes." The student can thus understand how the description of sayas and women of Lima supports Tristan's politics as described in her prefaces.

3. Geographic Issues: Obstacles and Possibilities

Issues of geography are clearly intrinsic to the primary texts with which we deal. Although our work in this area has not progressed as far as in the first two categories, we are nevertheless developing new access mechanisms in two main areas:

Partial Bibliography

Flanders, Julia. "The Body Encoded: Questions of Gender and the Electronic Text." In Electronic Text: Investigations in Method and Theory. Ed. K.Sutherland. Oxford, 1997.

Shriber, Mary Suzanne. "Introduction." Telling Tales: Selected Writings by Nineteenth-Century American Women Abroad. Ed. M.Shriber. DeKalb, 1995.

Sutherland, Kathryn. "Challenging Assumptions: Women Writers and New Technology." The Politics of Electronic Text. Ed. W.Chernaik, C.Davis, and M.Deegan. Oxford, 1993.