Emily McConville | December 9, 2017
Associate Professor of English Matthew Wilkens is fascinated by the use of geography in literature over time. How, for example, did the Civil War affect the importance of certain places in American literature, and what can literature tells us about Americans’ sense of place?
The answer can be found in books written during that period — potentially thousands of them, many more than Wilkens could ever read and analyze himself.
To consider the widest possible range of literary production, Wilkens turned to computation. He was recently awarded a $325,000 Digital Humanities Implementation Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to bolster Textual Geographies, a database and suite of tools he is developing that allow users to find, map, and analyze more than 14 billion place name mentions from books and journals in English, Spanish, German, and Chinese.
“I’m very pleased to receive this grant,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to bring new partners into the project and to have the funds and resources to work with — things that would be much more difficult to do without that financial backing.”
Textual Geographies draws its data from HathiTrust, a digital database of more than 100 institutions’ library holdings, many of which were originally scanned for Google Books. In 2014, with support from an American Council of Learned Societies fellowship, Wilkens mined HathiTrust’s public-domain texts — about four million volumes published before 1923 — for place name mentions.