Q & A

Q: Where can I download open-source GIS software?

A: Here’s the link to QGIS. Remember to select for Mac or PC. Check frequently for upgrades.


Q: What are some things I can learn from mapping a literary work?

A: Questions you might explore include the following: where, how, and with whom characters do move in a literary text? Which characters are most transient, and which most static? Who moves in groups, who is always alone?  How do characters’ racial, class, gender, and ethnic identities affect their journeys? Who moves within social class or ethnic group, and who moves across such groups? How do characters’ racial, class, gender, and ethnic identities affect their ability to travel? How are characters affected by landscape or environment? Do traveling characters interact with locals, or not? You can also use the map as a link to historical context–historically, what were the implications of where your characters lived, or where they traveled? You can also use it to chart historical change–how have the locations your text explores evolve over time? Maps can be linked to historical documents like census data, images, audio, or video.


Q: How can I tell whether a work of literature conducive to mapping?

A: Fiction locates its characters in place and time, but these places aren’t always specific. When you read a novel, do you see specific locations, or is the environment largely abstract? This project started with nineteenth-century urban novels because of their wealth of spatial detail: examples include Dickens, Wharton, Dreiser, and Twain. But we don’t think it’s limited to that–readers could also map war novels (_For Whom the Bell Tolls_), or works of war non-fiction (Whitman’s Specimen Days), modern expatriate works (Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night), modern urban novels (Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing), and many others (Ulyssesanyone?).


Q: What about mapping fictional locations?

A: We think this is doable! Does your text give you basic pointers toward location  (ie., distance from railways or towns)? One text a colleague is draft-mapping is E.M. Forster’s _When Angels Fear to Tread_. The text describes an imaginary town with approximate locations. To approximate distances, you might try the buffering feature in QGIS. But remember, you are making an argument through the map, so the primary questions to consider are: what do you want to learn? What do you hope to understand through making a map?


Q: Why GIS? Can I just put points on a map?

A: Of course you can. GoogleMaps is a great way to get started. Here’s one example make by Duke undergraduates: Civil and Human Rights Activism in Durham NC. The difference between using GoogleMaps and using GIS is that GIS will cause you to deal more actively with data. You have to decide what questions you want to ask about texts? That will help you determine which approach to take. See the comparison matrix for suggestions about GIS tools.


Q: How do I turn my text into data?

A: This is a *big* topic. Consult the Tutorial on the Resources page, and look at the first section.


Q: What tools are particularly good for timelines?

A: Time-Mapper combines timelines and maps and is great for students and for first-time users. Watch their 1-minute video– you really can create a map in minutes. Timeline.js works well for timelines too.


Q: Where can I get historic maps?

A: Here are some reliable sources: the David Rumsey Map Collection, New York Public Library Mapwarper. New: You can download geotiffs to your email from the Harvard Geospatial Library.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Leave a Reply