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Living literary Edinburgh

There is little doubt that Edinburgh has a long and illustrious literary history. And, although it is not uncommon for weekend visitors to seek out locations from the works of Irvine Welsh or Muriel Spark, the finer details are more likely to be locked away in libraries or held in the heads of enthusiasts. Now, an AHRC-funded project is seeking to change that by collating and mapping Edinburgh’s literary history in a user-friendly format.

The 15-month LitLong project at the universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews, has seen researchers sifting through screeds of data to come up with an interactive website and smartphone app that draws upon 550 publications to map 1600 place names across the city, along with 47,000 literary extracts. Drawing mostly upon literary works, LitLong allows you to use your phone to browse writerly locations near you, or to follow in the footsteps of anyone from Daniel Defoe to Alexander McCall Smith, reading as you go.

“The initial idea arose when we were marking 250 years of the study of English literature at the University of Edinburgh,” says James Loxley, principal investigator and Professor of Early Modern Literature at the university. “The idea was that if you could plot sites on a map then people might be able to find their way around the literary city using a GPS-enabled device. We made a prototype and it worked, although we found it was incredibly time-consuming to get the extracts and tag them with the necessary meta-data. Fortunately, the AHRC was offering funding for big data projects, so we got a team together to do text mining and analysis.”

The formation of this team allowed Loxley and research fellow Miranda Anderson, the idea's originator, to dream bigger than they first thought. It also opened up the opportunity to use existing databases, including those from the British Library and Project Gutenberg, as well as enabling the university to work with individual authors and their estates, mining e-book data for Edinburgh reference points.

“We initially did a sweep using our Edinburgh geo-parser, which is a text mining tool that looks for place name mentions,” says Loxley. “We had our own bespoke gazetteer, as places in literary texts get mentioned in all sorts of ways and you have street names, area names and colloquial names. So Edinburgh may be Auld Reekie, for example. Also, there are areas like Trinity and if you do a broad search for that you get a lot of theology. You also have books published in Edinburgh, so you may just have that one single mention at the beginning. It was a lot of work to fine tune.”

When using the app or website, users are presented with literary extracts or even whole books (if out of copyright) that reference the location they are looking at. So, you can read reactions to a church, street or park as well as what may have been there before it. In the future, it will be possible to search by emotive reactions to parts of the city, but you can already search by book, and see how the text maps onto Edinburgh.

“I loved seeing how The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie looks on the map,” says Loxley. “We also have Muriel Spark's autobiography, which is mainly about her early years. It is great to see those locations in relation to the spaces that she imagines in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Her own story is in the neighbourhood in which she lived, whereas the fiction moves across the city.”

Working alongside the data team, Tara Thomson, research fellow in English Literature, was responsible for making the literary aspects match up with the data, bringing useful or strong Edinburgh references to the top of the pile and discarding false leads.

“We went through results manually, looking at narrative,” says Thomson. “It was mostly fiction, but did include travel memoirs, literary correspondence and histories. I would go to the actual books and look for rich descriptions of place rather than simple mentions.”

Like Loxley, Thomson also found that working on the project changed her view of the city.

“I think the tendency of living in the city is to think of places as they are,” she says. “But this offers so many different ways of thinking and different routes through the city that I never would have expected. There are places that move too, which is an interesting problem. You realise that something used to be somewhere else and imagine what places were like before buildings were ever there.”

One of those working on data sets was Beatrice Alex, research fellow at the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh. Her work was largely in narrowing down the amount of data to be worked on, ranking finds by likely relevance. She, too, found herself working on some interesting anomalies in geo data that could cause confusion.

“There was some painstaking checking,” says Alex. “For example, the Edinburgh Zoo in the OpenStreetMap we used gave names and locations to each animal enclosure. So, for example, you had a specific location for the lions. We had automated and semi-automated processes to deal with most things, but manual checking was essential too.”

LitLong has an open API, which means that others can use the data to model their own city's literary tour site or to create reactions to the data crunched by the teams at the universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews. Loxley is keen to see what others might do with this, and is looking at how the project can be expanded in the future.

“What we haven’t been able to do in this iteration is have a lot of scope for interactivity,” says Loxley. “We would aim to do more with that in the future, so people can curate their own bookshelf walks and upload the extracts as they have encountered them along the way.”

He also hopes that the LitLong project will inspire new work about Edinburgh, and make people look at older works with fresh eyes.

“We held a writing competition as part of the project, with an author called Jane Alexander winning that. Her own first novel is just out, so that is all part of the living tradition of the city as inspiration.”

You can visit the LitLong project and download the app online.

Image: Muriel Spark's real world Edinburgh

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