Palimpsest: an Edinburgh Literary Cityscape

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Literature Languages & Culture

Abstract

This project involves a collaboration between literary and informatics scholars in order to develop an interactive, mobile-friendly website called Palimpsest. The name Palimpsest was chosen to evoke the multi-layered imaginative, conceptual and historical cityscapes of our everyday settings that the resource seeks to bring to life. Palimpsest will provide access to vivid, evocative and dramatic excerpts of a wide range of geolocated Edinburgh-based literary texts either via the web resource, or in the city streets via a smartphone or tablet.

The University of Edinburgh's literature department initiated a prototype project's development in 2012 as an innovative means of engaging people with literature. The prototype was manually curated; due to the laborious nature of this method it only includes around 200 excerpts. This project aims to greatly extend the scope and functions of Palimpsest through employing text mining and visualisation techniques.

This project will explore the ways in which text mining can be developed through drawing on literary methods, skills and experience in order to create a more in-depth means of machine reading than is currently available. An extensive search of online resources will be used to compile a comprehensive dataset of Edinburgh-based literary texts. The end-users of Palimpsest will have the capacity to access the full range of excerpts as they move around the online map or the city itself and to filter the excerpts according to certain properties, such as author, genre and date. This function will respond both to more general literary interests and to scholarly ones. In the later stages we will consider how to improve the text mining capacities and add more properties to the project dataset. The extendable range of properties will help to develop an increasingly fine-grained picture of the Edinburgh of particular works, authors and periods and a picture of the density of literary significance with which all parts of the city have been invested.

Palimpsest enlists the particular intensities of Edinburgh's literary cityscape, as is described by Robert Louis Stevenson in his Picturesque Notes: 'So, in the low dens and high-flying garrets of Edinburgh, people may go back upon dark passages in the town's adventures, and chill their marrow with winter's tales about the fire: tales that are singularly apposite and characteristic, not only of the old life, but of the very constitution of built nature in that part'. Stevenson then goes on to tell chilling tales, some now more familiar than others, of Deacon Brodie, Begbie the Porter, and Burke and Hare. More recently, Ian Rankin has in turn jointly credited Stevenson and Edinburgh with the inspiring of his own fiction: 'I owe a great debt to Robert Louis Stevenson and to the city of his birth. In a way they both changed my life. Without Edinburgh's split nature Stevenson might never have dreamed up Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and without Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde I might never have come up with my own alter ego Detective Inspector John Rebus'. As with Stevenson, in Rankin's debt of gratitude are intertwined the nature of the city itself and the fiction it has inspired. The literature is shot through with the city, and the city with the literature, as they have reciprocally shaped each other's forms.

In this project Palimpsest will draw on Edinburgh-based literary texts from the early modern period to the twentieth century, but the resource will also have the capacity to be recreated in other places. The aim is that by georeferencing a wide range of literary texts to their settings, the website will reveal a range of cityscapes that will newly engage scholars and the public with the urban environment and its literature. Palimpsest will encourage us to reflect on, question and celebrate the urban communities, cultures and environments in which we live.

Planned Impact

Palimpsest will add an exciting new dimension to the cultural life of the first place to be granted UNESCO World City of Literature status. Edinburgh's distinctive literary history, and the involved relationship of the city to the literary works written in and on it, is a matter of significant and widespread public interest, being the focus for a city council-funded Writers' Museum, literary tours and numerous existing writers' and readers' groups. The establishment of the City of Literature Trust in 2004 gave this literary culture a distinctive public face and a coordinating body, which has been active in pursuit of its aims ever since. Palimpsest's innovative and comprehensive mapping of literary place, its generation of a large scale database to underpin that mapping, its striking and accessible visualisations will furnish professional and voluntary bodies concerned with the city's literary life with a newly enlarged and deepened picture of literary Edinburgh and a new and extensive resource on which to draw. In the same way, Palimpsest online will offer writers inspired by the long tradition of Edinburgh-focused literature an unprecedented resource for exploring that tradition in all its fullness, while those who use the site on smartphone or tablet while actively exploring the streets of Edinburgh will be offered new ways of discovering and engaging with the city's literary topography and inheritance. The same opportunities, of course, will be available to the many readers fascinated not just by the work of Edinburgh authors but by their books' generation of, and interaction with, the city's literary topography. The database and web interface will offer such readers a variety of engaging and accessible ways to explore the development of that topography over the centuries, while those in the city will be able to unearth layers of literary history from its streets and spaces as they navigate them, thus rewriting the way in which a literary cityscape might be encountered. This latter group, of course, includes both residents and a substantial proportion of the three and a half million tourist visitors who come to Edinburgh each year.

In order for this potential for impact to be realised, we will ensure that Palimpsest is tailored and attuned to the needs and activities of its non-academic beneficiaries. In the early months of the project we will undertake briefing meetings with the City of Literature Trust, relevant officers at the City of Edinburgh Council, Edinburgh World Heritage and enterprises - such as tour companies - who draw directly on Edinburgh's literary history. We will also use existing networks and our interactive web presence and social media during project development to reach the further constituency of Edinburgh's reading public. Further to this, we will organise a series of public engagement activities during the lifetime of the project to build awareness and promote interaction. We are in discussions to hold events at the International Book Festival in 2014 and the Science Festival in 2015, and we will also organise readings, a 'meet the author' live interpretation event, and - under the title 'The Burgh' - a writing competition and storytelling events for which participants will take their cue from a historic map of Edinburgh of their own choosing. These will take place during the final nine months of the project, and will be documented in the blog; winning competition entries and a selection of audio recordings of the stories will be published on the Palimpsest website. In the final months, such events will provide a focus for the launch of the website and the app, and will also help us in securing media coverage to further reach our constituencies.

Publications

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Alex B (2016) Palimpsest: Improving assisted curation of loco-specific literature in Digital Scholarship in the Humanities

 
Title LitLong 
Description An interactive resource allowing users to engage with Edinburgh's literary cityscape through 47,000 geolocated extracts from narrative works set in the city. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact Various elements of the research for this project have been of use and benefit to a range of different users and user groups. 1) We worked closely with the Edinburgh City of Literature Trust, and our work provided the content for two 'Reading the City' events hosted by the Trust at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in 2014 and 2015. 2) The work led to the creation of two characters - Sir Walter Scott and Margaret Elephant - by the heritage interpretation company Artemis Scotland. These characters were used to engage audiences with the project, but Sir Walter Scott was subsequently used by Artemis and the City of Literature Trust for commissions from Network Rail and the Borders Railway. 3) The work underpinned a contribution to the Canongate Festival in 2014, adding a literary and historical dimension to their programme; we were also approached by the Royal Commission for the Historic Monuments of Wales, to make a contribution to the programme for their annual Digital Pasts conference in February 2016 which would allow them to diversify the range of topics and areas they could address. 
URL http://litlong.org
 
Description We have explored ways of using machine reading (text mining) to create a large dataset of extracts from literary works set in Edinburgh that can be plotted on a map of the city, geolocated to the place name mentioned in the extract. The project examined ways to make the automatic selection and curation of this dataset reliable, establishing and fine tuning algorithmic searching, selection and ranking.

We also explored ways of visualising our data on a map of Edinburgh, making use both of web-based and iOS app functionality.

We have begun to open the ways in which linear narrative texts might be explored in a non-linear manner, through their plotting in and on maps.
Exploitation Route The tools we used for the project are freely available to other potential users, allowing the literary cityscape of other places to be mapped in the same fashion. Our data is available via an API, allowing other users to explore and visualise other aspects of it. Our approach to using text mining and machine reading on linguistically sophisticated narrative texts, and in developing a gazetteer of place names sensitive enough to work reliably with such texts, offers a unique example for others to follow.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://litlong.org
 
Description Various elements of the research for this project have been of use and benefit to a range of different users and user groups. 1) We worked closely with the Edinburgh City of Literature Trust, and our research provided the content for two 'Reading the City' events hosted by the Trust at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in 2014 and 2015. 2) Our research underpinned the creation of two characters - Sir Walter Scott and Margaret Elephant - by the heritage interpretation company Artemis Scotland. These characters were used to engage audiences with the project, but Sir Walter Scott was subsequently used by Artemis and the City of Literature Trust for commissions from Network Rail and the Borders Railway. 3) Our research underpinned a contribution to the Canongate Festival in 2014, adding a literary and historical dimension to their programme; we were also approached by the Royal Commission for the Historic Monuments of Wales, to make a contribution to the programme for their annual Digital Pasts conference in February 2016 which would allow them to diversify the range of topics and areas they could address. 4) Our research has led to workshops with writers and other user groups employing the LitLong resource; a number of the writers who engaged with this have subsequently had work inspired by the project included in a successful anthology of Edinburgh writing, Umbrellas of Edinburgh, published by Freight Books.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Economic

 
Description Cultural Engagement project - Creative Writing Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact A Creative Writing Workshop using the LitLong app as a way of exploring the connections between writer and place.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016