Edinburgh is a self-consciously literary place. It was designated a World City of Literature by UNESCO in 2004, the first to gain this accolade – the designation acknowledged the extent to which the city has been a magnet for authors over the centuries, and the fact that so many writers have taken it upon themselves to respect and foster its literary heritage and reputation. The city’s many literary landmarks are obvious points of interest for residents and visitors alike, from the Scott monument to the Oxford Bar and beyond. How, though, 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’, a suitably cheesy pun, and published our code and an API so that anyone interested in our data or our concept could make use of either.
In 2016, following some research on the way in which different user communities interacted with the data via our interfaces, we took some of these ideas to the AHRC as part of a bid for follow-on funding, partnering with the City of Literature Trust and the Edinburgh International Book Festival. We were delighted when our bid was successful, and we’ve now designed and built a new universal interface which gives users on all platforms the same experience. We’ve 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 Facebook and Twitter. We’ve also partnered with Edinburgh publishers Birlinn and Canongate to include many more modern and contemporary works still covered by copyright law, so our database is now much bigger and more up to date. And we’re producing a series of resources which will help teachers, book group organisers and other professional groups make use of LitLong in their work.