Literary Mapping: Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

By Amy Wickner — July 01, 2013 5 min read
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A recently launched interactive literary mapping project aims high: Placing Literature‘s founders hope to harness “the power of crowdsourcing to create respected reference material for future research.” While the project has had a promising start, it has much room to grow as a scholarly resource of use to researchers, educators, and students of all levels.

Placing Literature grew out of an interest in place in novels from three cities: Duluth, Minn., New Haven, Conn., and San Francisco, Ca. A list of works that inspired the site’s creators is here.

The Arts Council of Greater New Haven, which funded the project, interviewed founders Andrew and Kathleen Williams about the relationship between real and fictional places, and how understanding geography can inform reading.

Placing Literature was conceived as a research tool first, a way to quickly find places associated with books, and vice versa, for closer reading elsewhere. Zooming in on each of the focus cities reveals detailed entries related to scenes from books set in each city. Users can map scenes in Google Maps, entering additional information like location, characters, symbols, description, and notes. Log with a Google account – Placing Literature is built on Google App Engine by a former Google engineer – to click on the map, drop a marker, and describe a particular book or scene.

Search is geographic-only and can be opaque. None of the information fields listed above are searchable or behave as sortable tags, so an entry labeled “costumes, nudity” in the symbols field won’t show up if you search for either of those terms. Searching for “costumes” jumped me away from San Francisco – where the aforementioned entry is located – to somewhere between Dallas and Fort Worth.

Nor is it possible to see all costume- or nudity-related entries in the map at once. Placing Literature follows different rules from other interactive mapping projects, which could be confusing for visitors used to certain kinds of exploration and interactivity.

Social contribution and interaction in the map is currently limited to “check-ins” – click the “check-in” button on an Anne of Green Gables entry and a “visit” counter adds one. That’s it. Unlike check-ins on Foursquare and other geotag-based social media, there’s no geospatial verification or data exchange involved in connecting users to places. Placing Literature allows checking in to any entry, placed anywhere, from anywhere, without logging in.

There are no check-in tiers, either. Users can’t specify whether they’re checking in because Anne is a favorite book, because they’re reading along and just got to the “carrots” scene, or because they’re physically milling about with 20,000 Japanese tourists in Cavendish, P.E.I. Without the ability to accommodate nuanced user contributions, Placing Literature’s check-ins run the risk of being comparable to Facebook “likes” – meaning-thin and low-commitment forms of engagement.

Getting a project off the ground with crowdsourcing is, of course, challenging. Placing Literature’s founders have seeded the site with model entries, but may have miscalculated how much and what kinds of information other readers are willing to add. The ceiling and floor of possible reader participation are fairly close together, limiting early enthusiasts of the site from pushing the project to the next level. The project may not get very far with crowdsourcing if it’s unable to encourage higher levels of reader contributions in addition to more readers contributing at a baseline level. Researchers with access to university libraries and large bodies of scholarship may be the primary audience for Placing Literature, but its knowledge base needs to be far broader to better populate the map.

Placing Literature’s creators sound very ambitious, but a bit more consideration of researchers’ needs may be in order. Search and other exploratory tools are de rigeur for navigating a project of this scale. Targeted data downloads would be extremely helpful as well. At the moment, clicking on Download in the top menu bar opens a CSV file of all 414 map entries and associated data. Useful for studying user behavior on Placing Literature, perhaps, but not necessarily for anyone studying the books or places themselves. The ability to filter data before downloading will also likely be helpful as the number of entries grows.

Finally, Placing Literature may be an admirable but unnecessary attempt to reinvent the wheel. Plenty of sites, commercial and nonprofit alike, already map literature in some capacity. We’ve covered numerous literary mapping projects here on BookMarks, from urban fiction-mapping in D.C. By the Book and Infinite Atlas to interactive maps of J.R.R. Tolkien’s oeuvre.

Social reading and social cataloging sites also contain a lot of place-based information about fiction and nonfiction alike. Small Demons’ Places page is a useful starting point for exploring this information. While the Goodreads API doesn’t currently offer geography-related methods, researchers and developers may be able to mine user reviews for references to place.

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) offers a wealth of resources tied to place, too, bringing together local museum, archives, and library collections with works from larger institutions like the Smithsonian. Exploring these resources – via Search, Map, or DPLA Map, an early, librarian-built experiment linking DPLA collections to the HTML5 geolocation API – can all inform scholars’ and students’ understanding of place and literature.

It’s hard to argue with the ideas behind Placing Literature, but any contributions it makes to the study and appreciation of literature may be lost amid the massive amounts of information already available. If a way can be found to connect the map with other, existing information sources – or turn the site into a hub pointing contributors to more information about their books and places of interest – Placing Literature may yet become the reference its founders envision.

Visit Placing Literature, read more about the project, and add some entries of your own. Follow the project page on Facebook for news and updates.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.