Reviewed June 2018
Jennifer Matthews, Collection Strategy Librarian
The Women Film Pioneers Project online database was launched in 2013 by Professor Jane Gaines. Originally imagined in 1993 as a multi-volume print publication, the project was developed as an online resource by Professor Gaines and the Columbia University Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. The laudable goals of the site are to focus on women’s contributions in all aspects of filmmaking (i.e. from silent era producers to editors and exhibitors). By not focusing solely on those participating in an actress role, the site enables a more comprehensive overview of women in the silent film era up to the burgeoning age of sound film production.
The Women Film Pioneers Project currently includes 259 silent era pioneers with profiles authored by film scholars, curators, archivists and historians. The site covers cinema in the United States (with a special focus on African-American cinema), and Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Mexico and Peru.) Further entries are in development for pioneers active in East Asia (China, and Japan), South & Southeast Asia (Philippines and Thailand), and the Middle East (Iran and Turkey). Throughout, there is an effort to provide both still and motion photographic images alongside the print documents that relate to each topic. The articles are well-written without being pedantic. There is a concentrated effort by contributors to place each of the entries within the context of current film scholarship, though the references provided are more of a works cited than a comprehensive bibliography. Another useful section is the “Other Resources” category on the “Resources” page, which has links to DVD/VHS distributors and film links, unhistoricized [sic] women film pioneers, and links to silent screen organizations. For researchers wishing for more information on the various articles, these links are useful for heading down that path.
In terms of access and usability, the Women Film Pioneers Project is free to read and does not require a login. However, the site’s lack of responsive design means that it does not translate well to mobile devices. Additionally, the Women Film Pioneers Project lacks an accessibility mode which would enable users with disabilities to better use the material found within. At minimum, the site could be upgraded to allow for responsive design and ensure captions are available for all attached media.
The information contained within the site is currently organized under the three umbrella categories of overviews, pioneers, and resources, which makes browsing cumbersome since there is no larger advanced search to assist with discovery, though results are broken up into heading groups as a way to mitigate this aspect. Instead, one must know the topic, name, location, or occupation of the research subject to determine results. Another opaque aspect is the references to holding institutions within the “Selected Bibliography” section of each entry, This information is indicated via a coding system used to inform users of various archive collections and image attributions. While these codes are linked within the site, they distract from the content references for one unsure of the symbol used. There is also a lack of outward linking to the collection repositories, which would enable researchers to explore these collections or make arrangements to do so. However, to the extent possible, each entry does provide references to other women pioneers, collections, and their filmography.
Another issue is that while still or motion images are frequently provided, the still images cannot be resized. These images are provided either in thumbnail or secondary, larger image, but users are unable to manipulate the image in any way (although once enlarged a user can scroll through all of the images associated with a particular record). Motion images are embedded YouTube clips.
The information contained within the Women Film Pioneers Project is incredibly rich for those working in women’s studies, women in theatre, or women in film. The attempt to broaden the collective understanding of women’s roles in the silent era of film is well worth the combined efforts of the participants. An update to current web accessibility standards, an evaluation of usability, and incorporation of external links to content would encourage use and expand the site’s reach to researchers in all fields of interest.