Mapping periodicals

At this year’s MLA in Chicago, I was part of a great panel on “Geospatial Literary Studies” organized by David Wrisley of the American University in Beirut. The “geospatial humanities”—digital humanities work that emphasizes place and geography—has been expanding in the past few years, and this panel was the first devoted to the subject at MLA. The panelists presented some fabulous projects, from mapping bookstores in nineteenth-century Manhattan to exploring the implications of the crowd-sourced maps used to track the spread of swine flu.

Despite the historical variety in the presentations, a common theme was the appropriateness of using contemporary maps to document historical places. Even when scholars georeference historical maps, the base reference is often Google Maps and the author tries to match up past places with where they “would” appear according to Google. In my own work with AcuGIS, I often run up against the problem that the software’s most basic base map still includes contemporary national boundaries—so that even as I use maps of epistolary networks to show the international nature of letter writing in the eighteenth century, the images in some ways reinforce borders. This problem is an effect of hacking AcuGIS, a program often used for engineering projects or climate change tracking, to use for historical purposes.

As geospatial work develops as a subfield of the digital humanities, though, scholars are starting to create tools incorporating historical and geographical information. For my online project mapping the locations of London periodical publishing, The Periodical World, I’m using Neatline, a plug-in for Omeka. Neatline doesn’t solve all the problems of GIS, but it doesn’t offer some options. It includes both a map and a timeline, so that points on a map can be associated with a date range. This means that scholars can integrate narrative into their maps in new ways. In my case, I’ve incorporated both a 1721 map of London and insets from a 1746 map to offer different views on how the streets have changed over time. Neatline provides an interactive experience, as users can move around the different locations for information, images, and references. I’m still expanding the site, but I’m hoping to turn it into a comprehensive source for information on the people and places of early eighteenth-century periodical publishing.

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‘Speeding up the Ent-like conversation’

Among the many great points Ted Underwood makes in his recent blog response to Franco Moretti’s latest work, I wanted to flag his brief opening observation about the Internet’s effects on scholarly interaction. “If the Internet is good for anything,” he writes, “it’s good for speeding up the Ent-like conversation between articles, to make that rumble more perceptible by human ears.” Academics have been largely inured to the glacial pace with which scholarly work appears, thinking nothing of a book review published years after the initial book or an article “forthcoming” for the better part of a decade. The move to online scholarship may call into question this model even more than it does the process of peer review or the bias toward big-name presses. Indeed, this new understanding of scholarly interaction was immediately evident in responses to Underwood’s post: Alan Liu noted Underwood’s “[t]houghtful, substantial post … on measurement and modeling” and Tweeted a link. Underwood then engaged in multiple Twitter conversations about the post, and commenters on his blog, including Moretti, enriched the original contribution.

I hope that in the coming years this kind of engagement will be increasingly built into graduate programs, so that students are learning to blog and Tweet (and whatever the next platform is…) in order to express themselves as members of a scholarly community. It’s one of the reasons I’ve required students to keep a class Tumblr in each of my courses for the past few semesters: I want them to think about the publicly appealing aspects of the work they’re doing, and how they can transmit that work to an audience (slightly) larger than that of their individual instructor. If we’re having these vibrant, engaged conversations out in the open, maybe we won’t have to work so hard to prove the value of the (digital) humanities to those outside the academy. As Underwood notes of Moretti’s writing style (and, I would add, that of the Literary Lab pamphlets in general), one of its strengths is “a willingness to dramatize his own learning process.” The DH interest in methodology and epistemology is an ethos that can benefit the humanities in general.