Issues Encountered In The Construction

Clare Watson and I set up the Women and Silent British Cinema site in response to a demand voiced at the November 2006 'Women and Silent Britain' event at the BFI. Elaine Burrows noted the necessity of creating a central place to record and share information, that could also serve as a communication point for researchers. As we discovered through the size and enthusiasm of the event's audience, plenty of people were interested in the women working in the film industry in Britain before 1930, and there was an awareness that many of us were probably ploughing through the same primary resources (journals and magazines, for instance), perhaps unnecessarily duplicating effort.

At the time, Clare and I were both PhD students with limited resources and we were not in a position to bid for any serious funds to assist the project. We opted to develop the site from a standard wordpress blog site, freely available on the web. This enabled us to create a hierarchy of pages where we could post information, but it also gave scope for visitors to the site to leave comments or ask questions. After some experimentation and testing, we came up with the basic structure of the site and began to create pages for all the women whose names we had at that point. From our original list of around 50, we have now found or been told about around 200 women, and the site continues to grow as new names and references are uncovered. Each woman has her own homepage and the amount of information recorded on each varies depending on how much we currently know. Some names are well-fleshed out, with biographies, filmographies, a photographic portrait and a list of references. Others are much more basic - sometimes we just have a name, perhaps discovered as a casual reference in the press. WSBC has been greatly enriched by the contributions made by the various students, archivists, academics, family historians and relatives who have used the site.

We do face technological limitations - although the site serves as a kind of database/repository of information, it is not build around any database software. The site is keyword searchable (a new and welcome development to wordpress since we began the project) but we cannot filter or quantify the data in any sophisticated way, add metadata or use footnotes. The latter question has led to discussions about how we should reference our sources, and also who the site is intended for - for example, we do not want to make the site too densely full of notes, references or abbreviations that might put off the general reader. At the same time we want the site to be useful to historians and one of our mains purposes is to inspire and support further research (that will hopefully feed back into the site).

In an ideal world we would like project funding that would enable us to develop the technological underpinnings of the site but we are also aware that if we had not taken this guerilla-style approach, we would currently know infinitely less about women working in silent Britain. The site now serves as a key reference point for researchers working in the area. Since we launched the site in March 2008 (after a five month development period) we have received over 18,000 hits. Immediate future plans for development include the indexing of Denis Gifford's British film catalogues into the site (to be undertaken by the indefatigable Elaine Burrows). We currently only include the names of actresses who worked in other capacities (eg producer, writer) but this project will enable us to list all women who made some kind of contribution to the industry (adapted authors will also be listed) before 1930. Buy using 1930 as out cut-off point we dip our toes into the sound period (we are keen to bridge the unnatural gap between silent and sound while retaining our focus), and would welcome the existence a follow-up project that would extend the project into the 1930s, 40s and beyond. Many of the women featured on WSBC continued to work beyond our cut-off date, although the silent period was unquestionably a golden age for women's film work.

A related project is the International Women Film Pioneers' project to produce a sourcebook looking at women in Europe and the rest of the world (the first volume of the sourcebook focused on North America). The second sourcebook was originally to have been a printed volume but it has now been decided that an online version would be sensible for reasons of space, and the fact that research is constantly developing. We share contributors (and indeed Clare and I have both written for the sourcebook) and expect the two sites to be mutually compatible, with some overlaps in terms of information but with a multiplicity of voices and approaches represented across the two. Because of our focus on British cinema we expect to list a larger number of names, including those that fall outside of the purview of the WFP project, and will continue to add new names, references and resources.

Nathalie Morris

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