Expanding the CanWWR Framework

Digital Humanities projects are living things. The germ of an idea sends out shoots that branch and flower until the initial conception has taken on a bigger and richer form than could ever be anticipated. It’s a wonder to watch and a privilege to contribute to.

Dr. Patricia Demers’ Canadian Women Writing and Reading from 1950 (CanWWR) eloquently demonstrates the ways in which a project grows. Since I came onto the project in September of 2010, the listings of writers, works and critical studies alone has expanded considerably. This, however, is just a small measure of how the project has developed.

CanWWR began as a listing of writers and their works, categorized by genre, decade and awards won. Unique among such listings, Dr. Demers incorporated not only writers of prose, poetry and plays, but also singer/songwriters, composers, graphic storytellers and screenwriters. This was presented first in PDF and then on a public web page. Over the next few years, the project conducted interviews with writers, curated an online exhibit of Canadian women’s artists’ books in partnership with the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library and surveyed readers.

The web page grew to encompass these accomplishments even as the database of writers and works benefited from Dr. Demers’ knowledge and the work of her research assistants. Eventually, Dr. Demers expanded her investigations to include critical studies on the writers and works she had collected. This necessitated a major addition to the site’s database and website, requiring not only new database tables and connections, but far-reaching changes to the web page and data entry structure. The critical studies have become a crucial part of the project, connecting its audience with the wider discourse surrounding a large number of writers.

Even bigger changes are coming, as CanWWR prepares to enter into a larger network with CWRC and Orlando. In the last year and a half, the project’s data entry conventions have been formalized to ease automated data sharing between CanWWR and the larger network, and all the works and writers extant updated to match. More recently, the project has begun adding a series of biocritical entries for select writers, thanks to the work of research assistants Chloe Jones and Jessica Ratcliffe.

The work bringing all writers and works into alignment with a common standard revealed a growing concern: many writers publish under a multiplicity of alternate names. The CanWWR database was designed with the assumption that each writer would be listed under only one name. As the listings grew, it became necessary to acknowledge this multiplicity, but the project could only work around the original design by listing each new name after the original one. The net result has been that users of the CanWWR web site must know the original name under which a given writer is listed to find them.

To solve this problem, I proposed the addition of an Alternate Names Directory. This directory would enable CanWWR’s users to locate a writer from their alternate names without having to search the listings manually. This proved to be an extensive undertaking, particularly as the documentation on the web site’s development proved limited. The directory required a new database table separating writers’ names into their preferred and alternate names, then linked back to that person’s listing in the original table of writers.

Proceeding past that point required a careful examination of the web site’s PHP code, HTML and style sheet, to determine how best to fit a new page into the existing structure of the larger web site. This informed the PHP script drawing the new table’s information from the database and transforming it into a listing fit for the web page. Updating this listing proved a different challenge: though the public CanWWR web page is generated by PHP, the data entry web page is in Ruby, another programming language altogether. Adding a new data entry form for the alternate names table has required the expertise of another research assistant, Ashley Moroz, whose time was generously loaned by CWRC.

Thanks to Ashley’s contribution, CanWWR now has a fully functional Alternate Names Directory accessible to website visitors that can be updated as needed by future research assistants. This addition will no doubt be joined by others as CanWWR continues building its unique contribution to the discourse surrounding Canadian women writers.