Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs 519 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

June 07, 2006

Prof Takes Academic Search Above and Beyond Google

A University of Guelph English professor is helping to transform online humanities research. Susan Brown and two co-editors at the University of Alberta have created Orlando, a 5.5-million-word history of women’s writing in the British Isles that uses an online search and indexing system with capabilities beyond Google.

“Everyone loves Google, but it’s really not adequate for academics in the humanities because often we need to be able to search more effectively without having a specialized search term,” said Brown. “We wanted to push the limits on scholarly research by creating a resource that uses the power of computing in new ways.”

Academics have recently begun creating sophisticated digital archives that make existing work available, but what makes Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles From the Beginnings to Present different is that it contains all original material and is the equivalent of more than 40 books, she said.

In creating Orlando, named after the 1928 Virginia Woolf book, Brown and her co-editors designed the content and the means of delivery of their text simultaneously, allowing researchers to locate answers to precise, complex questions.

“You can find anything from women writers responding to Jane Austen to references to cats in women’s writing between 1700 and 2000 to the books that use Edinburgh as a setting,” said Brown.

Whereas most search engines look for keywords without paying attention to content, Orlando allows people to conduct searches that can reflect the ambiguity of the English language, she said. “The English language is slippery, and we wanted to create a search tool that could be more sensitive as a result of judgments made by the researchers. We’ve structured Orlando so that you can search for or link to material in context-sensitive ways.”

The site includes entries on the lives and writing careers of about 1,000 writers and allows students or researchers to quickly look at the discussions of a writer’s work and life side by side on their screen. Users can also create customized chronologies, drawing on more than 30,000 events, or search more than 20,000 bibliographical references.

The co-editors will be writing three volumes to complement the website materials. U of A English professor Isobel Grundy is the author of the early period to about 1830, Brown is responsible for the material from1820 to1890, and U of A English professor and project director Patricia Clements is working on the 20th-century materials.

Since it can be confusing for students to know which online resources are appropriate to use in academic searches, Brown said she and her co-editors thought it was important to have their work go through the same peer-review process as any book. Orlando is published by Cambridge University Press, one of the world’s largest academic publishers. U of G members can access the site for free through a link on the McLaughlin Library website.

When the project first began in 1995, the Internet was barely getting off the ground. “The ground’s been moving under our feet while developing it,” said Brown. Over the past decade, nearly 100 people have been involved in creating Orlando. Fifty-four students at the University of Alberta and 28 students at U of G have worked on the project. “Some people now in faculty positions were trained on Orlando, and some have continued working in humanities computing,” she said.

Brown, Clements and Grundy recently received the 2006 Society for Digital Humanities Award for Orlando in the category of outstanding achievement for computing in the arts and humanities.

Susan Brown
School of English and Theatre Studies
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 53266 /

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