Words on the Street: the Uses of a Digital Literary Cityscape

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

Abstract

Edinburgh has a unique literary cityscape. It has long been associated with authors such as Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stephenson, and Muriel Spark; more recently, it is a very strong presence for writers including Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith. Its literary heritage features in the city's self-presentation to visitors and tourists as well as to residents, and in 2004 it was the first ever city to be granted the UNESCO title of 'World City of Literature'.

In 2014-15, the 'Palimpsest' project undertook a singular experiment. Using textmining and geolocation techniques, we searched millions of digitised books to bring together narrative works which made use of Edinburgh as a setting. These techniques generated a dataset of 47,000 extracts from more than 500 titles, each one centred around the use of a georeferenced Edinburgh place name. In this way, the literary cityscape becomes visible in new ways - it can be mapped, as well as read, and new connections and comparisons between works and places can be seen or made.

Our research for 'Palimpsest' was made public via a website, LitLong.org, and through a couple of exploratory cartographic visualisations. The publication of the work has also made clear that there is substantial interest in our data beyond academia, and in our innovative digital reorganisation Edinburgh's literary cityscape. Two significant players in the cultural economy of Scotland's capital city, the Edinburgh UNESCO World City of Literature Trust and the Edinburgh International Book Festival, have shown interest in making substantial use of the resource, and have agreed to work with us to develop it. However, its utility for our these institutions is conditional on the creation of a new intuitive and interactive resource, specifically designed for users outside academia and created in accordance with the needs of external stakeholders and the diverse communities they seek to serve. This collaborative project will focus on the design and development of such an interface, accessible online, via mobile phones and tablets, and via large touchscreens in cultural venues. The aim is to create an innovative literary experience which will assist our project partners in the promotion and cultivation of Edinburgh's literary heritage and current reputation.

In addition, the project will pioneer a new form of collaboration with an independent Scottish publishing company, Birlinn Ltd. We will use the workflow pipeline created for the 'Palimpsest' project to text-mine and georeference relevant works from the company's Polygon imprint, incorporating them into our dataset and making georeferenced extracts available via the interface. In this way, we will be bringing the company's publications to new readers in a new way, helping to promote them and to encourage readership of new Edinburgh-set literature.

We will collaborate with our project partners to develop ways of using the new interface that are particularly suitable for specific professional user communities with which they work, including teachers, tourist industry professionals, librarians, school students, visitors, and hard-to-reach groups. The resources developed will be published on the project website, and made freely available to other potential beneficiaries. We will also be gathering user responses via the interface, which will combine with quantitative data to give us insights into what users like and value about the literary works on show.

We will accompany the launch of the new interface with a campaign of illuminated installations at selected sites throughout Edinburgh, literally putting the words on the street. The aim will be to foster the widest possible uptake of the resource, enhancing its usefulness to project partners and other beneficiaries. We hope to establish that this way of interacting with the literature of place can offer a model for creative economies elsewhere, and perhaps on a larger scale.

Planned Impact

The aim of this project will be to realise the potential for impact created by the 'Palimpsest' research, and we anticipate that it will be of benefit to a range of extra-academic users. Key beneficiaries here will be the project partners, who will gain from the development of an interface that speaks to their needs as custodians, promoters and supporters of literary Edinburgh for a wide range of kinds of user. The project will also furnish them with tested resources for using the resource with those different communities, enabling them to continue to make use of LitLong in their activities after the project has finished. The project will also provide our partners with content and focus both for festival programming in August 2017, and for outreach and engagement activities undertaken in the autumn of this year.

A further set of beneficiaries here will be those professionals - such as teachers, librarians and tourist industry professionals - who work with our project partners to promote literacy and cultural engagement among the wider communities they serve, and to respond to visitor interest in Edinburgh's literary heritage. The engagement resources we develop focused on the unique capabilities of LitLong will be constructed with the input and assistance of such professionals, in line with their needs, and will be made available and promoted subsequently for use by others. There is also scope here for LitLong to have a beneficial impact on those wider communities, including visitors, school students and hard-to-reach groups, potentially enhancing not only their engagement with culture, but also their knowledge of and interest in the city and its history.

Beyond this, we anticipate that the project will have an impact on the work of Birlinn Ltd, giving the company the opportunity to explore a new way of bringing their publications to the attention of a wider or new readership, and potentially increasing both sales and awareness. Birlinn may also benefit from the availability of quantitative and qualitative data on how LitLong users are interacting with the works included in the dataset.

Further beneficiaries will be the creative economy contractors, including the developers, marketing company and workshop leaders, who will gain business, content and relevant experience from their involvement.

We also hope that the project will demonstrate the attractiveness and interest of engaging with literature through a digital, map-based interface, and provide a model for workflow and outcomes which will prove attractive, transferable and scalable. Currently, attempts to create online literary maps or tours are fundamentally reliant on human curation for the selection of elements and extracts, geolocation, and provision of contextual or further information. This is a very time-intensive business, and one which is therefore very costly to undertake; once built, such maps are then even more costly to sustain and update. Our model has the potential to demonstrate the effectiveness of a different, more automated approach, which would make the creation of such resources significantly more affordable for smaller or independent publishers or for third sector and industry bodies charged with the promotion of the literature of a particular place, and correspondingly easier to update and maintain. It is possible, therefore, that this project will act as a springboard for further developments of relevance not just to Edinburgh but to the literary economy elsewhere and more broadly.

Publications

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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 The work underpinned a new interface and apps for LitLong which were released in 2017 and helped both the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust fulfil their institutional aims. There has been further collaboration stemming from the work with the Book Festival on their Outriders project (2019-20) and with the City of Literature Trust on their proposed Literature House development (2019-)
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Creative Economy,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description Creation of new interface and engagement activities 
Organisation Edinburgh International Book Festival
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We created a new interface and apps for LitLong which were used by the City of Literature Trust to fulfil their aims and by the Book Festival to provide a focus for activities and installations at the 2017 festival
Collaborator Contribution The City of Literature Trust helped us with UX design research, with user testing, and with the creation of engagement activities. The Book Festival provided a space in which to demo the new interface and to stage our engagement activities promoting the resource
Impact The web resource LitLong.org, iOS and Android apps. The disciplines involved are informatics and English Literature.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Creation of new interface and engagement activities 
Organisation Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We created a new interface and apps for LitLong which were used by the City of Literature Trust to fulfil their aims and by the Book Festival to provide a focus for activities and installations at the 2017 festival
Collaborator Contribution The City of Literature Trust helped us with UX design research, with user testing, and with the creation of engagement activities. The Book Festival provided a space in which to demo the new interface and to stage our engagement activities promoting the resource
Impact The web resource LitLong.org, iOS and Android apps. The disciplines involved are informatics and English Literature.
Start Year 2017
 
Description LitLong at the EIBF 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Focused around a touchscreen installation in the EIBF Greenhouse on George Street for the duration of the festival, we curated a series of activities and interactions with festival attendees. The Greenhouse was free to access, so casual and more engaged visitors were able to interact with LitLong via the touchscreen and converse with team members and festival guides. On two Sundays during the festival, we curated LitLong Days in the Greenhouse, staging storytelling events, readings and costumed tours by heritage interpreters. The aim was to help EIBF fulfil its mission to engage more openly and broadly with residents of and visitors to Edinburgh, and to promote interaction with the new LitLong interface. Feedback from users and from the festival suggested that these aims were accomplished.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Wikipedia Editathon 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Working with Wikimedians at the University of Edinburgh, we organised a Wikipedia editathon to create new and improved Wikipedia entries for authors whose work is featured in LitLong. 25 pages were created or improved.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017