A new literary history: Professor James Loxley on the lessons of the Palimpsest Project

Professor James Loxley’s dynamic report on the origin, development and future of the Palimpsest Project provided an engaging second lecture for this spring series at the Centre for the History of the Book. The blog associated with the project, which Professor Loxley directed us to throughout the lecture, explains that the name Palimpsest was chosen ‘to evoke the multi-layered imaginative, conceptual and historical cityscapes of our everyday settings that this resource seeks to bring to life.’ Professor Loxley’s lecture further elucidated these noble aims and outlined some of the obstacles the project faced throughout its journey.

Edinburgh’s identity as a literary city is unquestionable. Designated the first UNESCO City of Literature in 2004, this title was invented specifically for Edinburgh, and was only later followed by cities such as Melbourne, Dublin and Reykjavik. Professor Loxley pointed us to examples of Edinburgh’s self-consciousness of its literary identity going back over a century, including the 1891 publication Literary Landmarks of Edinburgh by Lawrence Hutton. The story of the great writers fostered within the city, Walter Scott, Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, is a familiar one, and one told to thousands of visitors every year. However, a narrow story risks becoming self-perpetuating and repetitive, and therefore incompatible with the kind of innovation sought by the Palimpsest Project. The project aimed to move away from this biographical literary history to a less familial story; Edinburgh as a setting for literature, rather than just a place where people wrote. This approach would allow new stories to be told, some which had previously been pushed to the side by the dominance of the Edinburgh literary giants.

Professor Loxley continued in explaining some of the problems that come with even considering creating a ‘digital map of literary place’. Geocriticism, or spatial literary studies, always encounters the overwhelming obstacle of scale. How do you deal with particularly overwritten spaces, where the proliferation of texts is so dense as to become incomprehensible? The issue of plenitude, he continued, is particularly a problem when approaching cities which have reached an almost ‘mythic status’ in their literary output. Edinburgh is certainly one of these ‘hotspots’. The questions become; how do you determine which texts are meaningful to a space, or at least, more meaningful than others; and how do you begin to construct any sense of meaning or pattern out of this mass?

The answer is technical innovation. Professor Loxley walked us through the technical nitty-gritty of text-mining huge digital databases for relevant material and the problems this engendered. Using place-name occurrences as the key to searching for Edinburgh-related texts, they were able to mine a huge amount of material. However, place names are not unique markers by any means so much fine-tuning was required to make this material relevant. An ‘Interestingness-Score’ was created, which may sound like a nebulous concept, but was based on the freqency of adverbs and adjectives in a text and therefore the likeliness of a descriptive passage about Edinburgh. Once the material was in place, stage two was the creation of LitLong by staff at St Andrews, a front-facing user interface that allows you to interact with the material. Both an expansive website and a mobile app allows you to search for extracts both statically and on the go, occasioning a few humorous Pokemon Go parallels. And the stats don’t lie; 1600 place names are attached to 550 published works and approximately 47,000 extracts. It is a huge achievement.

The future is LitLong 2.0. A new version which will re-present the data allowing easier ways to get in and for users to independently explore. Key additional features will include saved ‘libraries’ of personal extracts, the creation of user ‘paths’ to follow and crowdsourcing error reporting. The creation of a process for publishers to be included on the map will also make the project self-sustaining commercially and ensure that it doesn’t sit there static and finite but continues to grow.

After such an inspiring lecture the only thing to do was to go for a wander, phone in hand. Outside my flat I found an extract from an 1863 travel journal by Cuthbert Bede entitled ‘A Tour in Tartan-Land’; ‘the tweed and the twilight came together, and now it is getting dusk…over the field of prestonpans, and by colonel gardiner’s house, and by other places whose names are redolent of historical associations, carberry-hill and pinkie, then by portobello, the margate of the modern athens, with the firth of forth and the opposite coast in full view; then under the shadow of arthur’s seat, and hard by holyrood, into edinburgh itself.’ I have lived in Edinburgh for six months but never have I felt so situated within a place whose names are redolent in literary associations as I did just then, and that is the unquantifiable achievement of Professor Loxley and the Palimpsest Project.

Report by Daisy Stafford, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh.

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