In the past decade I’ve been involved in a number of projects aimed at exploring how maps, literature and digital technologies might be combined.
A Secret Golden Age
Most people have heard of the most famous Edinburgh writers – Walter Scott, say, Robert Louis Stevenson, Muriel Spark, J. K. Rowling or Ian Rankin. But for centuries before any of these were writing Edinburgh was a busy hub for the writing and reading of literature of all kinds. A website and app featured a series of walking tours through the city, offering residents and visitors the opportunity to explore some of that great heritage through their phones or laptops.
It featured the works of some of the finest medieval makars writing in Scots and English (plus the occasional guest from down south), and the tours were themed to allow you to let you follow several different topics. Pictures and audio illuminate the texts. It’s the work, primarily, of the hugely talented Dr Fionnuala O’Neill, ably supported by the Edinburgh City of Literature Trust and the AHRC.
How might you map the literary cityscape of Edinburgh? What would feature, and how should it be made visible? How might people choose to interact with its unique imaginative spaces?
The Palimpsest project – which began as a prototype in 2012, and continued until March 2015 with support from the AHRC – set out to explore these questions. The literary city we were interested in was the one imagined by countless authors over the centuries, visible not only in singularly influential works but also in the cumulative invocations of place and pathway to be gleaned from the works of many less celebrated writers. But was there any way of capturing this? And how could we bring it alive for people interested in Edinburgh’s status as a locus of the literary imagination?
An innovative mash-up of literary criticism, textmining and computer visualisation gave us a way forward. The project took around a quarter of a million digitised books, lifted out those which were sufficiently relevant to our topic, and then plotted their invocation of Edinburgh locations on an interactive map made for web and mobile. Our database, drawn largely from out of copyright works, contained roughly 47,000 separate extracts anchored around their use of an Edinburgh place name. We called the website LitLong: Edinburgh, and published our code and an API so that anyone interested in our data or our concept could make use of either.
In 2016, we partnered with the City of Literature Trust and the Edinburgh International Book Festival to design and build a new universal interface which gives users on all platforms the same experience. We developed new ways for users to customise their experience of the literary cityscape by making and following paths, and through rating and sharing excerpts with their friends and followers on social media. We’ve also partnered with publishers to include more modern and contemporary works, so our database is now much bigger and more up to date. And we produced a series of resources which will help teachers, book group organisers and other professional groups make use of LitLong in their work.
In 2017 I began working with a team led by Professor Sally Bushell at the University of Lancaster on a unique project aiming to map literary spaces digitally. Using Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope to help categorise the places and spaces of a range of literary works, the project has created a dataset of tagged texts and illuminating maps.
The Lancaster team also recreated some fictional spaces in Minecraft. Through Litcraft you can explore Kensuke’s Kingdom, Robinson Crusoe’s island, and Treasure Island!