How did eighteenth-century print networks really operate? This week, The Junto asked Jordan Goffin, Special Collections Librarian at the Providence Public Library, how mapping Rhode Island’s early book trade led to the creation of a new digital atlas.
JUNTO: Can you describe the Atlas of the Rhode Island Book Trade in the Eighteenth Century, and why you chose a digital platform for the project? How did you select the software and organize your digital workflow?
GOFFIN: The Atlas is my attempt to map out all the printers, booksellers, book binders, etc. in Rhode Island and figure out where they were and at what dates. I originally intended to put together just a simple timeline for my own use, but as I started collecting the data I decided there was no reason not to make it a public resource. I also think that the widespread interest in data visualization (especially geographic) and the digital humanities means that resources like this are inevitable, so I wanted to get a sense of the challenges and the amount of labor involved.
Early on in the process as I was gathering the data, I started looking at all the different options for presenting it (and there are quite a few out there). Although there were a lot of great timeline and map software options (some with interfaces and features that I would have enjoyed being able to use), I wanted something that would combine a timeline and a map and be somewhat customizable but not require more skill (or time) than I had. When I came across Timemap.js, that seemed like the best option out there. (I also wanted to use technology that was completely free and available to anyone, and it fit the bill there as well.) The other half of the project was a simple, custom MySQL database for searching and browsing and for generating the XML file used to display the map points. After setting up the basic public interface, most of the workflow was researching book trade locations and adding them to the database.
JUNTO: What are some of the challenges you faced in creating the Atlas? Any features you’d like to offer, but the technology just doesn’t exist yet?
GOFFIN: The biggest challenge was researching the locations of book trade members who were sometimes represented only by a newspaper advertisement with a casual reference to their location across from a no-longer-existing landmark. That was by far the most time-consuming (and enjoyable, to be honest) part of the process. The biggest conceptual difficulty was that because of the way the Atlas is set up, users might be viewing it at a statewide level or they might be zoomed in to the street level or anything in between. Since some of the points on the map are very precise (the house in which John Carter’s print shop was located, for instance, is still standing) and others are not (all we know is the city in which they operated), there is a lot of potential for misleading information.
There are a lot of features that I would have liked to include, but I think it’s less the case that they don’t exist and more that they require a lot of skill and time. I would have liked the Atlas to provide the option for displaying custom date ranges on the map (similarly to the great Atlas of Early Printing, for example) or displaying just selected individuals and paths across the state. Building something from the ground up would make those possible, but there would also be drawbacks.
JUNTO: How can researchers use the site, and contribute to the project?
GOFFIN: I’d love to get feedback, corrections or suggestions people might have, either about the site as a whole or particular entries. And I always love to hear from people who have used the site for their own research.
JUNTO: What’s next for the Atlas? Can you offer a few reflections on participating in SHARP’s digital showcase, and how the field of digital humanities is reshaping our approach to book history?
GOFFIN: At the moment, researchers in Amsterdam (Paul Dijstelberge and Michael Putter) are using the same software to put together an international atlas of the early modern book trade. It’s still in the early stages, but it looks like it’ll be a great project. I’m hoping that in the future it will be possible to view the interactions between members of the book trade across state and national boundaries and that the RI Atlas will be a part of that. On a smaller scale, I’m also planning to start adding data about the publication and sale of particular books to the Atlas. The SHARP digital showcase was a lot of fun, and my only regret is that I wish I’d had a chance to see more of the other projects on display. People are doing a lot of really interesting things in the realm of digital humanities, and I think geographically-focused approaches are a big part of that.