The Perdita Manuscripts Database is as useful a political and scholarly argument about the value of manuscripts as it is an archival or preservational tool. The database hosts hundreds of manuscripts written by early modern women, and does so not simply for fear of a potential loss of the texts due to natural disaster or library space reduction. Instead, the foundation of the project is predicated on an argument that these manuscripts were already being erased through devaluation related to both the gender of their authors and the format of the texts. This is not to imply Perdita represents a perfect resource; indeed, this review explores several elements of the site that render it a challenging tool limited to a specific audience. However, while further development of metadata and enhanced technology may eventually improve the data presented on the page, the project itself represents an important mobilization of the digital realm as a critique of existing forms of knowledge rather than a simple regeneration of them.

            The Perdita Project was founded in 1997 as a response to a simple but fundamental lack experienced by scholars working on early modern women’s manuscripts: the ability to organize, find, and access the manuscripts themselves. Existing resources tended to privilege not only male canonical writers, Jill Millan argues, but also the format of the book, which was viewed as “authoritative and final” in contrast to the “private, tentative and ephemeral” versions of texts in manuscript form (“The Perdita Project Catalogue”). As a result, the writings of early modern women, which tended to exist primarily in manuscript format and largely outside the canon, were quite literally lost, often buried in “record office catalogues and card indexes” (“Catalogue”).

            The eventual response to this lack was the creation of the Perdita database, which currently houses over 230 manuscripts written by women in the British Isles from 1500-1700. The site’s searching aid facilitates browsing through a variety of lenses; users can view texts based on author names, source locations, first lines, and genre. The latter is a particularly interesting and extensive collection which, through its inclusion of categories such as “advice”, “receipt” and “culinary writing”, expands the often limited and gendered definition of genre itself and calls for emphasis on preserving and encountering a broader variety of texts. The advanced search function allows keyword searches to be refined using the same categories listed above in addition to Boolean operators.

            Though such resources are not yet consistently supplied for every text, additional information is also provided about many manuscripts on the database. The most detailed of these physical descriptions inform the user about the form, support, extent, hand, binding, and condition and acquisition histories of the manuscript being viewed. Biographies of figures featured on the site are similarly useful but not yet fully developed. A 2009 review by A.B. Johnson notes the absence of a biography for Queen Elizabeth I, for instance, and as of this review the entry for this important and well-known monarch remains blank. However, the ability to search the database’s additional information, incomplete though it is, represents an important attempt to, as Jill Millman writes, “unlock the potential of a catalogue in ways that would be difficult or impossible in print” (“Catalogue”).

            Where the site’s usability is most limited is, somewhat ironically, the viewing and manipulation of the manuscripts themselves. It is true that the search function allows for the location of keywords on specific pages. However, the unavailability of a full-page transcription combined with the difficulty of reading many of the texts, even on a medium-large sized screen, means these ‘lost’ documents, though now found and centrally located, remain inaccessible to many users. A person must log on to the site with a clearly formed conception of exactly what they hope to find, and posses equipment advanced enough to allow for on-screen examination of texts that are often extremely difficult to view. Johnson’s review, then, which concludes that the audience of the database is necessarily limited through its format to “graduate students and faculty/researchers” (“Perdita Manuscripts”), is an assessment that is unlikely to shift until technological developments render either the site or the manuscripts themselves easier to present and disseminate.

            Imperfect though its execution may periodically be, one can ultimately read The Perdita Manuscripts database as a partial answer to the critique cited in John Walsh’s work (which is itself referencing Derrida).  That is, while digital humanities may indeed be particularly susceptible to ““archive fever”, an inordinate amount of emphasis on textual editing and archiving at the expense of more…creative uses of technology” (“Multimedia and Multitasking”), Perdita’s very existence acts as a powerful critique of the ways in which information about the early modern period has traditionally involved the gendered and formal devaluation of manuscripts. Thus archives can, and in the context of Perdita I believe must, be read not as impartial collections of texts created purely for the sake of collection, but as broader and inherently political projects that generate and regenerate knowledge.

Works Cited

Johnson, A.B. “Perdita Manuscripts.” CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries 46.7

            (2009): 1282. Web.

Millman, Jill. “Introduction to the Perdita Project Catalogue 1997-2007.” Perdita

            Manuscripts. 2008. Web. 22 October 2011.

Walsh, John A. “Multimedia and Multitasking: A Survey of Digital Resources for Nineteenth-

            Century Literary Studies.” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Eds. Susan

            Schreibman and Ray Siemens. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. Web. 20 October 2011.