Distant Reading Mennonite Writing

The Distant Reading Mennonite Writing (DRMW) Project is a pair of open-access, peer-reviewed bibliographic datasets built to enable quantifiable analysis of Mennonite literature and criticism in English up to the year 2020. The datasets and accompanying documentation can be accessed at the bottom of this page.

What is the DRMW Project?

Contemporary Mennonite literature is a rich body of poetry, fiction, drama, and life writing, with its best-known authors enjoying popular success and critical acclaim. A robust critical conversation has developed around the literature, with dedicated journals and an ongoing series of international conferences where a loose community of writers and critics gather to share work in the field. Recently, scholars have begun the work of reconsidering the history, methods, and parameters of this critical conversation, and regularly speak of Mennonite literature as a field in “transition.”

The DRMW Project aims to foster this reconsideration by drawing on the work of Franco Morretti, who suggests a quantitative approach to literature is required to counter the effects of literary studies’ longstanding investment in close reading individual books. There is only so much we can understand about a given body of literature, he reasons, if we have read but a small fraction of its contents. Even a field the size of Mennonite writing, small as it may be, is far too large for scholars to have read it all. As close reading practices tend to focus scholarly efforts on canonical works and key figures, Moretti’s proposed solution is a methodological reframing of the focus and scale of literary analysis, using the digital humanities to undertake a “distant reading” of fields of study as a whole.

The DRMW project seeks to enable an adaptation of Moretti’s methodology in the field of Mennonite writing. Drawing and expanding on a series of existing bibliographic efforts in the field, the project offers the two most comprehensive datasets of Mennonite writing written in English—one for books of Mennonite literature, the other for works of Mennonite literary criticism—through to the year 2020. The peer-reviewed, open-access datasets include bibliographic details for more than 4,000 writers and works, along with additional data related to genre, gender, citizenship, and more. With over 40,000 points of searchable and queryable data that span more than 150 years of published material, the DRMW Project reveals a vastly expanded field of Mennonite literary studies.

How Was the Data Compiled?

The project’s two datasets were compiled by a careful search through various library catalogues and holdings, as well as a systematic review of Mennonite journals and extant bibliographies. Detailed data models, with key term definitions, project parameters, sources, and input directions were established to guide the compilation process and ensure consistency. These data models are available with the DRMW file package (see below).

In consultation with librarians at the Milton Good Library (Conrad Grebel University College) and Mennonite Historical Library (Goshen College), a detailed Boolean dragnet was used to filter through the library catalogue databases chronologically, via keywords. Catalogue results were complemented and confirmed by WorldCat and VIAF databases, by consultation with librarians at six related institutions, and, where possible, by physical or digital copies of the works themselves.

The library catalogue searches were supplemented by an extensive survey of Mennonite periodical and journals, encyclopaedias, monographs, and anthologies, as well as a close engagement with a number of extant bibliographies — including, most notably, the annual indexes for Anabaptist publications maintained by Mennonite Life, and the field’s primary bibliographic project to date, the Mennonite/s Writing Bibliographies compiled by Ervin Beck and maintained by Daniel Shank Cruz. As the parameters for inclusion in the DRMW datasets are specific to this project, the project should be understood as complementing, rather than replacing, these related bibliographic projects.

Finally, a draft of the dataset was divided by genre and circulated to experts in the field for peer review, a process which refined and further expanded the datasets.

What Can the Datasets Do?

One of the primary objectives of the DRMW Project is to expand scholarship’s current understanding of Mennonite literary history published in English, and the authors who have contributed to it. With tens of thousands of data points on Mennonite literature and criticism available in database form, scholars can query the data and identify trends related to authorship, gender, genre, and publication dating back to the late nineteenth century. They can use the dataset to interrogate the conventional narratives that have settled on the field—including stories about when Mennonite literature in English started, and in what genres; about who was writing the first Mennonite literary works, and where they were publishing; about where the scholarly conversation about Mennonites and literature began; and more.

Scholars can use tools from the digital humanities to explore a vastly expanded field of Mennonite writing, and to create data visualizations that help us understand it better.

We have created several examples of the types of visualizations enabled by the project datasets below. What if we wanted to learn more about the general trends about Mennonite literature and criticism over the past 150 years, paying special attention to questions of genre and gender?

Example 1: Publication Trends of Mennonite Literature and Criticism Over Time

When did Mennonite literature and Mennonite literary criticism in English begin, and how have they grown over time? What genres of literature have been most prevalent in the field, and how has that changed over the decades?

Example 2: Criticism Publishing in North America

Which venues have been most active in publishing Mennonite literary criticism, and which venues publish whom?

Example 3: Mennonite Literature by Gender

Who has been writing Mennonite literature?

Example 4: Mennonite Literary Criticism by Gender

Who has been writing Mennonite literary criticism?

How Can I Access the Datasets?

The first edition of the dataset (DRMW 1.0) is available now. It can be accessed in several ways:

  • DRMW 1.0 data models are available as PDFs here (literature) and here (criticism)
  • DRMW 1.0 Datasets can be accessed as CSV files via Borealis, the Canadian Dataverse Repository.
  • DRMW 1.0 Datasets are also available as Excel files here (literature) and here (criticism).

A Work in Progress

Please note: The DRMW Project is a work in progress. DRMW 1.0 is the first published draft of the dataset, and we anticipate periodic updates that incorporate the feedback of others in the field as we move the project toward a comprehensive and exhaustive dataset. As such, we invite feedback to the project from its users, including omissions or corrections. Please review this table to see if your specific concern has already been raised.

The DRMW Project Team includes its Principal Investigator, Dr. Robert Zacharias (York University), with Project Collaborators Kyle Gerber (PhD Candidate, University of Waterloo) and Marion Tempest Grant (PhD Candidate, York University).

The Project has been generously funded by York University via a Minor Research Grant (2020) and a LA&PS Small Research Grant (2023), with support from digital scholarship librarians, Kris Joseph and Alexandra Wong, at York University.

The data visualisations included above were built by Marion Tempest Grant using Flourish.

Earlier versions of the Data Models and sections of the databases were generously peer-reviewed by the following experts in the field: Ervin Beck (Criticism); Daniel Shank Cruz (Criticism); Lauren Friesen (Drama); Jeff Gundy (Fiction); and Ann Hostetler (Poetry). We are especially thankful to Lauren for sharing a draft of his forthcoming encyclopedia article on Mennonite drama, which greatly expanded our dataset, and to Ervin Beck for his contributions regarding oral narratives and folklore as literature.

Our Next Annual Conference

Subjects, Settlers, Citizens

The 1870s Mennonites in Historical Context

University of Winnipeg and Livestream