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Interview with Professor Melissa Terras on feminist digitisation practices and the future of our digital cultural heritage

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We talked to Prof Melissa Terras, Professor of Digital Cultural Heritage (CAHSS) and Research Director at EFI, about her recent publication ‘Millicent Garrett Fawcett: Selected Writings’.

“Courage calls to courage everywhere” is perhaps the best-known quote associated with Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), the leading UK suffragist and campaigner of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But did she really intend it as the rallying cry for feminism it has come to be known as?

We talked to Professor Melissa Terras, Professor of Digital Cultural Heritage (CAHSS) and Research Director at EFI, about her recent publication ‘Millicent Garrett Fawcett: Selected Writings’. The book is a new collection of writings made by the leading UK suffragist and campaigner which tells the story of her contribution to our modern society in her own words.

Professor Terras’ research focuses on the use of computational techniques to enable research in the arts, humanities, and wider cultural heritage environment. Using feminist digitisation practices, she and Elizabeth Crawford collated a selection of 35 speeches and articles, as well as 22 artworks and photographs for the book, and prompt us to interrogate how the digitised information environment can inform our cultural heritage.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett was one of the most famous women campaigners of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and many of her achievements are well-known today. Why was it important that this collection be made now?

For me, it’s because in this online world of disinformation, we have to own the information we are putting out there and provide high-quality sources for things that matter. There’s been a huge resurgence in interest in Millicent Fawcett over the past few years, and her name is now synonymous with the celebration of women getting the vote. Mostly this is because of her statue in Parliament Square, which was created to celebrate the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. But if you looked into her and tried to understand what she did, and what she actually said…there was an absence there. I wanted to read and understand her speeches and arguments. Why wasn’t there already a collection when I looked for one? I couldn’t believe it. So, I rolled up my sleeves. It took almost five years to put together but it’s so important to me that this is available now – so people understand what her contributions were when they talk about her – and also that it is available as open access, so her words can be freely read by anyone.

Can you tell us more about feminist digitisation practices and how you used these to create the collection?

I was looking for a phrase to describe the work in finding, digitising, and assembling this collection. Fawcett wrote such a huge variety of speeches, columns, and articles, and appeared in various artworks and photographs. I collected over 300 different written pieces, which she had produced over a 61-year period. Some of these were available online, hidden in bigger digitised collections, or books. Some I had to get digitised on demand, either for free or paid for. Some of them, I went into libraries and archives and took pictures of them myself – or had someone in the vicinity do it for me! –  as this work had never been collated before. This was an act of centring feminist and women’s history and using the digital to collect and curate a group of materials which had never been placed at the centre of academic enquiry or reproduction before. All it took was an iPhone, time, some emails and some personal financial resource. I do think this is an act of owning women’s history, using digital means, to collate information and histories that the mainstream – for whatever reason – has not tackled. There are various political men who have had their entire life’s work digitised – John Stuart Mill, Winston Churchill – but why not Millicent Fawcett? Feminist digitisation practices are both an attitude, and an application of technology in an efficient way.

What does this tell us about how digital cultural heritage techniques can be used in the future?

I think it shows how networked our world is now, and how we can use those networks, and previously mass-digitised content, in different ways. It was one thing to collect these speeches. It’s quite another to understand them. We had to mine them against mass-digitised content to understand the people, the places, the popular culture, the allusions, and even the jokes. In 100 years’ time, people will be looking at our popular culture and wondering why people laugh when someone mentions Barnard Castle, without understanding the political and social climate of the time. So, it was a piece of excavation to understand things like the 1909 joke “Mr Winston Churchill is doubtless a very interesting and versatile young man”, which led to audience laughter (he had changed political parties and just lost a bi-election). I think this shows us how we can use mass-digitised content to understand different aspect of the past and our ever-changing society, so it does open up new avenues for research. There was a lot of manual searching and linkages done across this piece – especially when quotes were half-remembered, or just plain wrong – and I wonder what will happen to our understanding of the past if and when we can train AI to search across this content and build those links for us, always with a human in the mix to help curate and check suggestions. Will this change the scope and ambition of what we can study and understand about the past?

EFI is challenge-led and aims to help society navigate a complex future – what does this mean to you and your work more broadly?

There’s a place for the past, in the future. People need to reflect on the past to understand how society works now, and the different issues that lie just under the surface in how we go about our lives. We see it now in many political situations, that the skill sets needed are linguistic, historical, political, and sociological, etc, but being able to apply this type of reasoning to the digitalisation of society. I’m fascinated by how the mass-digitised records from the past (whether that’s newspapers from the Victorian period, or archived websites from a year ago) can be useful to the planning and understanding of a better future. I’ve been working at this juncture of digitisation and heritage collections for the past twenty year – but it is about future access, and encouraging access for all, to the materials and technologies which help us make sense of the world.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett: Selected Writings’ is edited by Professor Elizabeth Terras and Elizabeth Crawford, and is available open access from UCL Press.

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