Literary history hound


As part of a series, the Canada Foundation for Innovation created five profiles on researchers who unlock the power of big data.
By Sharon Oosthoek

Susan BrownSusan Brown, University of Guelph


The Orlando Project began as a major history of women’s writing in the British Isles and has grown up to become a leading example of how to integrate text and technology.

It is not a book, nor is it a digital edition of an existing text, explains one of its director, University of Guelph digital literary historian Susan Brown. Rather, it is a trove of information on 1,300 writers — amounting to eight million words — that combines information about their writing careers with chronological and bibliographical information.

“What makes Orlando different from similar scholarly works is the extent to which the material is structured by the encoding of the text to reflect various aspects of literary history,” says Brown. That includes features of literary works such as genre or how they were received, through to writers’ relationships with their publishers, to their intellectual influences, friends, political activities and health concerns.

With the help of advanced research computing, the Orlando Project’s specialized encoding allows materials to be found, sifted and reordered according to researchers’ interests and priorities. It also enables massive visualizations of writers’ networks and relationships that allow researchers to perceive new patterns in cultural history.

“Orlando has been heralded as a model for other such works of digital scholarship to follow, in its use of semantic encoding to create a digital resource that leverages the power of computers in new ways,” says Brown. Orlando’s pioneering model for digital scholarship also underpins the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory, a new online platform launching in spring 2016 that will make advanced research computing accessible to literary scholars across the country.

Find more stories of research in action on, the website of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, where these podcasts originally appeared.

About the series

The incredible power of high performance computing to unlock massive data sets in order to answer an impressive range of research questions is a hallmark of computing in the present era. Research today is increasingly driven by massive digitization initiatives, high-throughput devices, sensor platforms and computational modelling and simulation, all of which generate data that are unprecedented in size and complexity. Here are five Canadian researchers whose work relies on advanced computing capabilities.

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