After months of work, Mapping Petersburg is now live! Built in collaboration with Dr Sarah J. Young, it is a pilot for a much larger project taking in two centuries of the Petersburg text. The aim is not only to investigate the actual writings, but also to see what tools and techniques are applicable to ‘literary cartography’, and to theorize just what it means to read a book in such a fashion. This test case focuses on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, plotting the places, events and characters of that novel upon a backdrop currently provided courtesy of Google via Mapstraction.
Building the site has been an intense and rewarding experience, especially as the deadline drew closer, and one that requires mulling over. In the meantime, to go with Dr Young’s first thoughts, here are eight things I learned from it:
1: Data sets are hard. It’s painstaking work generating data, especially from an unstructured, subjective text like Crime and Punishment.
2: Get into the source. The first map took ages to make, hand-coded as it was. But being close up to the code taught me alot.
3: A little code goes a long way. The first script to automate data-plotting took ages to write. But once it was done, I was able to generate a map in a few minutes.
4: We need research, theory, design. There are many possibilities when making maps, and even something seemingly simple, like icons, requires a lot of thought.
5: We need documentation. There were a number of promising tools that had to be put aside, because without documentation they were little more than black boxes. No, source code isn’t enough. And similarly, it behoves the ethical webmaker to describe how they constructed their site.
6: Geo-rectification is complex. We had wanted to use maps contemporary to Dostoevsky, but ran into all sorts of difficulties. Tools like Mapwarper are great, but without understanding it, and understanding the mathematics behind it, I was unable to surmount the problems we faced.
7: Maps are to be read. They are not transparent depictions of place. One can just as much read the map through the book as the book through the map.
8: The Digital Humanities is all about building things. The experience of doing is irreplaceable and inexhaustible.