Mapping Editions: Literary Editions and GIS (a field report)

July 18, 2013, 13:30 | Short Paper, Embassy Regents E

This paper will grapple with the relationship between geography and literature or, to borrow a phrase from Kevin Bartoy, “between dirt and discussion.” [1] Based on key foundational questions and a brief review of current humanities-based GIS projects, I propose that GIS (Geographical Information Systems) offers the potential to re-imagine the form and practice of literary editions and affords pedagogical opportunities for spatial analysis in literary studies.

This past spring, students in my Literature and Maps class experimented with Google Earth to create a small literary edition of Malory’s Roman War account (from Le Morte Darthur) as a means to explore how textuality and ambiguity might be accommodated in a system based on locational coordinates and quantitative principles. With GIS projects already changing the practice of analyzing literary texts; does it also hold the potential to change the practice of producing literary texts such that they foster spatial thinking and new means of reading and analyzing literary texts? Annotated editions within a geographical platform offer the potential for student projects as contingent, learning-based editions which explore digital and imaginative terrain in the production of literary editions and digital humanities projects.

Theoretical and historical contexts that arise from the “spatial turn” in literary studies and the humanities [2] are key foundational questions that ideally should inform the editorial principles of GIS-based literary editions prior to the technical work of layering a text into a GIS system. Such spatially-based projects in the digital humanities hold significant potential for collaboration between geographers and humanists, between the “the poets and the geeks [3] .

Researchers in the discipline of history have enthusiastically embraced the potential of GIS and, indeed, Richard White, in his introduction to Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship has predicted that GIS databases “are going to change the practice of history [4] .” It is significant, however, that in the seminal text The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship, literary scholars and editors are notably absent as contributors. The Scholars Lab, of course, has begun to generate work such as Mapping St. Petersburg which is experimenting with “literary cartography” to explore the representation of space in literary texts [5] .

There has been a strong pedagogical interest in “literary mapping” via web sites such as Google Lit Maps, but itinerary-based mapping provides only a rudimentary means by which to investigate the potential intersection of GIS and literary study. Indeed, “lit-maps” run the risk of sidestepping Michel de Certeau’s concern that “surveys of routes miss what was: the act itself of passing by [6] and thereby reducing spatial analysis of literary texts to the reductive reproduction of itineraries.

GIS projects offer the potential for a more complex engagement with spatial methodology than mere itinerary mapping, including, as David Bodenhamer has noted, “text-based geographical analysis, multimedia, animated maps, deep contingency, deep mapping, and the geo-spatial semantic web [7] .” The very concept of “deep contingency” offers striking potential for editors and readers of GIS-based literary editions, a potential that has yet to be explored. Such digital humanities-based editions, I would argue, need to accommodate fluidity if they are to engage readers in the kind of analysis Bodenhamer envisions.

Currently, there are a few digital humanities projects that explore the possibility of a GIS-based literary edition. By virtue of the presence of a full version of the text within the GIS system, Mapping the Lakes: A Literary GIS comes closest to creating a true GIS-based literary edition, although the data analysis is less than fully integrated with a readerly analysis of the texts. David Wallace’s project, Europe: A Literary History [8] smartly utilizes key principles of GIS to produce a collaborative approach to literary history that also explores geographic relation in light of what Iain Chambers has conceptualized as “fluid cartographies [9] .” Many contemporary geographers have chafed under the ascendency of GIS in geography departments and the limitations of qualitative analysis within GIS systems; in this regard, literary scholars bring both naiveties and methodological approaches that can critically engage in GIS reception and use. For students, the technical and editorial issues in creating a GIS-based edition offers an opportunity to engage in spatially-attuned literary practices.

This “field report” will engender a conversation about possible methodologies for literary GIS editions and share my students’ foray into the creation of a Google Earth-based edition. I hope to initiate a discussion of pedagogical opportunities for students to engage with literary texts as editors, analytic cartographers, and readers in the process of producing digital and spatial humanities projects.


Kevin Bartoy, Between Dirt and Discussion: Methods, Methodology, and Interpretation in Historical Archeology (2006).
For example, foundational work by Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (1974) and Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Postmodern Critical Theory (1989).
Cohen, Patrica, “Digital Keys for Unlocking the Humanities’ Riches,” The New York Times, November 16, 2010.
Richard White, Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship (2008).
See Mapping Saint Petersburg.
Michel de Certeau, “Walking in the City.”
David Bodenhamer, The Spatial Humanities: The Future of Humanities Scholarship (2010).
Europe: A Literary History
Iain Chambers, “Maritime Criticism and Theoretical Shipwrecks,” PMLA 2010.