Apr 242014

The Palimpsest project aims to put literature on the map. To do that, it has to find the places in text where places are named – the textual locations of spatial locations. So, in addressing the challenges, we’ve naturally been thinking about the relationships between places and names.

One particular issue we’ve discussed is how to describe a specific, rather special quality we’re looking for in literary books and chapters. For example, we want to find all and only the passages of text that are obviously about Edinburgh, and places within it. Effectively, we’re looking for texts that have a suitable density of spatial location names. For want of a better term, we’ve been calling this property “Edinburghiness”. But while this mouthful might work so long as we only want to apply our methods to the City of Edinburgh, it doesn’t generalise (to Dublin, or San Francisco, or wherever).

After some discussion, we’ve decided to go with the term “locospecific”, to denote the quality of a text which seems to be “about” a specific place, and so “locospecificity” is the property we aim to measure in candidate texts in the collections we’re analysing. In case you think this is a neologism, the term has actually been used before, with the meaning we want, by Peter Barry in his 2000 book “Contemporary British Poetry and the City”.

While on the subject of names, we’ve also been thinking about names for papers describing our project, and names for the app that we will release to let people explore literature on the map. So far, our favourite paper title is “Lat Long Lit Ling” – latitude and longitude for literary linguistics. And our favourite name for an app is “Biblioscope” – a device for seeing books in a new way. But maybe “LitLong” would link it back to the paper. Either way, we welcome alternative suggestions from all our readers. Because names do matter.

— Jon Oberlander

Mar 072014
Plan of Edinburgh from 1631

Looking out at seascapes and hill ranges, a castle perched on a rocky outcrop leads down through labyrinthine closes and wynds to orderly Georgian squares and gardens. Wandering in this city, suddenly you may find yourself on a street that tunnels under another street above, while buildings pass upward across the horizontal levels of the city. Such disorientating alternations of heights and depths, Coleridge on first viewing described as ‘a section of a wasp’s nest’, and as like ‘a city looked at in the polish’d back of a Brobdignag Spoon, held lengthways – so enormously stretched-up are the Houses!’ Edinburgh’s distinctive cityscape has formed over the centuries a literary panorama of equally complex and intricate layers.

What’s in a name? Waverley, the Canongate, the long-gone Tolbooth and Luckenbooths, the New Town: each place name is a portal that calls forth layers of accumulated meaning, as every further reference draws on and diverges from its established coordinates in the fictional and historical works of our literary panorama. Our project is developing methods and resources in order to geo-reference place names in literary works, such as streets or buildings, local areas, or vernacular terms (e.g. “Auld Toon”). We will then examine the contexts and associations around these place names. We will provide an interactive website that will enable other people to explore the dimensions of literary Edinburgh through geo-located extracts of literary works dating from the early modern period to the twentieth century, either while traversing the city streets or from afar via a virtual representation of the city.

Palimpsest is an AHRC-funded project, which involves a collaboration between literary scholars, computer scientists working on text mining, and information visualisation scholars. Our name for the project, Palimpsest, evokes the multi-layered poetic, remembered and imagined city that we aim to reveal. There will also be a number of guest blogs and events along the way that will call on the creative impulses of today’s inhabitants or visitors of the city, with writing and storytelling competitions on ‘The Burgh’. To follow our story of discovering the city’s literary panorama, you need only find your way back here and watch as it materializes before you.

– Miranda Anderson and James Loxley

Edenburck in Schottl map (1631) © National Library of Scotland (http://maps.nls.uk)