LitLong Edinburgh: exploring the literary city

Edinburgh has just celebrated its 10th anniversary as UNESCO city of literature (Facebook | Twitter). The original city of literature, here’s Edinburgh’s literary story and details of tours and trails (guided | self guided | virtual – a bit lacking in the maps department, mind). Edinburgh is also home to the Scottish Poetry Library (Facebook | Twitter), the world’s first purpose built institution of its kind, it says here, and the Scottish Storytelling Centre (Facebook | Twitter), ditto, adjacent to John Knox House. Not forgetting the Book Festival (Facebook | Twitter), the “largest festival of its kind in the world“. 

The UK has one other city of literature, Norwich (see City of stories), and further literary cities include Dublin (great writers museum), and, pleasingly, Dunedin (about). Update: Nottingham has a bid in! If But I know this city! (tweets | David Belbin | report) is anything to go by, it should be successful. And there’s even Literary Dundee (@literarydundee).

I suspect not entirely coincidentally, 30 March saw the launch of LitLong (@litlong), the latest output from the AHRC funded Palimpsest project (@LitPalimpsest) at the University of Edinburgh (see Nicola Osborne’s liveblog and #litlonglaunch, esp @sixfootdestiny). An “interactive resource of Edinburgh literature” currently based around a website with an app to come launched for iOS, LitLong grew out of the prototype Palimpsest app developed three years ago, taking a multidisciplinary team 15 months to build – geolocating the literature around a city is no trivial matter! See about LitLong for some of the issues.

550 works set in Edinburgh have been mined for placenames from the Edinburgh Gazetteer, with snippets selected for “interestingness” and added to the database, resulting in more than 47,000 mentions of over 1,600 different places. The data can be searched by keyword, location or author, opening up lots of possibilities, such as why is Irvine Welsh’s Embra further north than Walter Scott’s Edinburgh? Do memoir writers focus on different areas than crime writers? See too Mapping the Canongate.

Part of the point of Palimpsest is to allow us to explore and compare the cityscapes of individual writers, as well as the way in which literary works cultivate the personality of the city as a whole.

On the down side, while there is a handful of contemporary writers in the mix, the majority of the content necessarily comes from copyright free material available in a digitised corpus, ie old stuff they made you read at school. Plus search results can be rather overwhelming (339 hits for the Grassmarket) – filters for genre, time period, might be an idea. However the data is to be made available enabling interested parties to play around as they wish, with open source code and data resources on GitHub.

I’ve had a look at the data around Muriel Spark, who would surely be delighted to be considered contemporary. The prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) has a section set in Cramond, near where I grew up. Drilling down using the location visualiser quickly brings us to:

“I shouldn’t have thought there was much to explore at Cramond,” said Mr. Lloyd, smiling at her with his golden forelock falling into his eye.

Searching the database brings up three pages of Cramond results to explore, including 17 Brodie snippets. Note that here you can filter by decade or source.

A search for Cammo, even closer to home, brought up a quote from Irvine Welsh’s Skagboys, although the map shown was different depending on which tool I used:

Edinburgh is a city of trees and woods; from the magnificence of the natural woodlands at Corstorphine Hill or Cammo, to the huge variety of splendid specimens in our parks and streets, Alexander argued, a pleasing flourish to his rhetoric. — Trees and woodlands have an inherent biodiversity value, whilst providing opportunities for recreation and environmental education.

location visualiser map - quill not in park

location visualiser map – quill in back gardens rather than the “natural woodlands” #picky

database search map - not Cammo!

database search map – not Cammo!

At the other end of the scale a search for ‘Bobby’ brings up 72 snippets from Eleanor Atkinson’s book, that’s a lot to handle…TBH I don’t really want them, I want a nice map of locations mentioned in the book, or at least a list, to create my own Greyfriars Bobby trail. At the moment it’s not possible to switch between the text and the map from the location visualiser, although you can do this snippet by snippet from the database search.

As things stand LitLong feels like an academic project rather than a user friendly tool – some use cases might be an idea.Hopefully the same approach will be applied to other cities in due course.