The Women Film Pioneers Project: Two Years Later
by Kate Saccone
It’s been two years since the Women Film Pioneers Project (WFPP) launched online and the fall of 2013 commemorated both the finalising and publishing of the website itself (thanks to Columbia University’s Center for Digital Research and Scholarship) and the beginning of a more permanent awareness of this iteration of the project in the mainstream press, academia, and digital humanities circles. This year’s (2015) Women and the Silent Screen VIII in Pittsburgh was the perfect place to take the project’s pulse and critically reflect on the last two years of its existence.
Over this period, Google Analytics has allowed us to track our users in terms of their behaviour, location, and technology. As of September 1st, 2015, we had a total of 93,930 sessions and 70,392 users. The number of pages viewed per session averaged 2.21; the average session was 2 minutes and 13 seconds. Returning users accounted for 25.1% of site traffic, first-time visitors for 74.9%. This indicates that there is a solid group of people who consistently return to the site and hopefully use it as a research tool in a sustained way.
Geographically, traffic to WFPP has come from a variety of countries.
The United Kingdom is an obvious top location due to our connections with organisations like WFTHN and Women and Silent British Cinema. Cities with established silent film organisations, archives, university programs, and film festivals make up the top locations, with London coming in at #3.
Of course, Google Analytics is not the only way to understand our audience, as it only gives us a basic snapshot of users and their interactions with the site.
One of the biggest post-launch surprises was seeing how many relatives of pioneers reached out to us as WFPP became a genealogical resource. Being online, we are more accessible to those who might not otherwise see a film studies book on women in the silent era. Additionally, having a contact email at the bottom of the webpage encourages these more immediate and personal interactions. For example, we received an email from a man who once had Ethel Grandin as a babysitter. At the other end of the spectrum, someone contacted us looking for any legal heirs of Dorothy Yost in regards to unclaimed royalty payments.
Currently, the biggest challenge facing both WFPP’s editorial team and our partners at the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship are the issues of corrections and future updates to career profiles. Small-scale modifications have occurred since our launch, allowing us to exist from the beginning as a continuously updatable resource with near-immediate responses to new film discoveries, new image purchases, DVD releases, and changes in an archive’s collection. However, how will WFPP handle large-scale changes and more substantial corrections to profiles as new career information is discovered? Would we ask contributors to rewrite their entries? Or is there some design element on WordPress that would allow us to add new scholarship in a separate space without changing the original essay? Would we allow any individual to sign in to any profile and add updates? Or would we continue to follow a more traditional publishing process of reviewing and inserting it ourselves? For now, I am saving all updates suggested to WFPP as we continue to discuss how to handle our elastic nature.
As WFPP continues to expand, I keep returning to a fascinating and important question—how do we define it? The fact that there is no one word or phrase that seems to be regularly used in a way that encompasses the contents and uses of WFPP is illuminating. On the one hand, it points to the complex nature of the project as a whole. On the other hand, it highlights an identity crisis of sorts in that we do not know exactly what we are…yet. Since our launch, the most common term used is “database”, which drastically undersells the value of WFPP. I have also heard everything from “website” to “interactive web-based encyclopaedia”. Neither of those terms are ideal—the former erases the offline community that this project grows out of and the latter, while suggesting something valuable with “interactive”, does not highlight the collaborative nature of historical research. WFPP has also been called an “archive”, which is incorrect in that we do not own or preserve a collection in the traditional sense. For now, one term that works better at highlighting the value of WFPP is “portal”, which emphasises how users have the ability to not only read and move through our linked collection of essays, but also gain access information to physical assets in actual archives.
The fact that we continually redefine WFPP is not surprising given that it means something different to its various users. For digital humanities proponents, the importance of WFPP is its status as a digital entity and its role in a larger movement of increased visibility, shareability, and reuse (with attribution) of content. For users with a traditional film studies background, WFPP’s content is crucial as it re-writes film history by making the unknown visible and emphasises the continued importance of archival research. WFPP also exists offline as a network of scholars interested in women in the silent era and the importance, there, is the intellectual community itself. As our launch illustrated, we are also a genealogical resource, seen less as a scholarly tool and more as a personal/historical one. Finally, for contemporary female filmmakers, the project is often presented as a political tool in grassroots campaigns against Hollywood’s gender inequality. For example, WFPP was included in the Sundance Institute’s Female Filmmaker Initiative Resource Map, which offers support to contemporary women filmmakers as they combat the large-scale inequality that continues to exist in the industry today.
As we look toward the next two years—and beyond—we will see the project (and our discussions around it) continue to grow in exciting ways. The last two years illustrate that WFPP exists as an important resource at a critical time. The Women Film Pioneers Project is not only in a great position to move forward and help rewrite history and shape the present, but we are also in good company.
Although we have a number of UK entries in progress, there are still many unassigned pioneers in need of coverage:
Anne Bannister Merwin
Ethel M. Dell
Mary Field (d)
Francis E. Grant
Rita (aka Mrs Desmond Humphreys – sc.)
Peggy Hyland (a/p/d)
Christabel Lowndes- Yates
Marcelle de St. Martin
E. Alma Stout
Lucy Heys Thompson
Marjorie V. Wilcox
Frances Cautley Farrell
Mrs. Margaret T. Pender
Mrs. N.F. Patton
Maririn Hayes (e)
Guidelines for profiles: https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/about/guidelines/
Please contact Christine Gledhill (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Kate Saccone (email@example.com) if you are interested in contributing.
Kate Saccone is the Project Manager of the Women Film Pioneers Project. She holds an MA in Film Studies from Columbia University (2013) and a BA in Screen Studies from Clark University (2011).