Edinburgh is a singularly literary place – indeed, it was the first city to be designated a UNESCO World City of Literature, a network that now includes Prague, Heidelberg, Dublin and Melbourne (and Norwich. Don’t forget Norwich.). It has a lengthy heritage as the birthplace and residence of writers including Walter Scott, Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, Muriel Spark and J. K. Rowling. Visitors to the city can wander through ‘Makars’ Court’, and drop into the Writers’ Museum.
More than this, Edinburgh is a city which has frequently been used as the setting for compelling and popular works, from Scott’s Heart of Midlothian down to Irvine Welsh’s novels and short stories or Ian Rankin’s Rebus books. It is a city that is built out of writing as well as of stone.
The Palimpsest project is a collaboration between literary scholars, computer scientists specialising in text-mining, and information visualisation specialists. It set out to find a new way of accessing and interacting with this rich heritage. Using text-mining and geolocation on large collections of digitised works, and focusing on place names as markers of a book’s engagement with place, the project team created a database of 46,000 extracts from more than 500 works which variously use Edinburgh as their setting. Meanwhile, the team also created innovative visualisation tools, which offered users the opportunity to interact with the data in different ways. Although the project was academic in inception, with a number of technical challenges to overcome, the resources have been intended for much wider use.
At this year’s Digital Past conference, James Loxley will describe the challenges faced by the project, and the insights gained from the building and use of the online resources it created. He will also focus on future developments, as they look to add functionality to the resources and respond to user feedback.