Author Archives: katiecwilliams

About katiecwilliams

I am a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee in Geography. I study how people make decisions about natural resource use.

Placing Literature Reaches Far and Wide

You know how when you go on vacation and you come back to an email box so full you are stunned that so many people love you enough to keep sending you stuff?  Well, that’s a little bit of how I feel after taking a little Placing Literature break.  After our website launched at the New Haven Festival of Arts and Ideas, the best kind of chaos has ensued!  In just over a month, Placing Literature has been featured on CNET, Media Bistro and Huffington Post.  We’ve been mentioned in The New Yorker (scroll down a little) and by New York Times columnist, Carl Zimmer.  Andrew was interviewed on Literature for the Halibut on 88.1 KDHX in St. Louis, Missouri.

The really amazing thing to me, as a geographer, is how far, wide and fast Placing Literature has spread.  The CNET article was reposted by several news outlets and translated into at least Dutch and Russian.  After the articles were translated, you could see more spots on the map in the Netherlands, Russia and other places in Europe.  About 4% of our page visits have come from the Netherlands.  4%!

So, in just over a month, we’ve had 12,200 visits and over 10,000 unique visitors.  Readers have mapped more than 530 places.  We have over 500 “likes” on Facebook.  Fans of particular books and series have mapped their favorite places.  A few authors have mapped places from their own books.  As more people read about our project, more people have contacted us.

One of my favorite recognitions is that The Great Lakes Commons has called Placing Literature one of their member artists.  The Community of Artists in the Great Lakes is raising awareness of the Great Lakes through artistic works – working to connect those who live in the basin to experience and love their Great Lakes.  This is a topic that will be explored more in future blog posts.

That’s the goal of Placing Literature, to use literature as a tool to identify the elements of and give people a way to describe the places they know and love.  Now people on the other side of the world will know about your favorite places when you add them to our (everyone’s) map.

Why We Study Place

There’s more than one way to understand a place.  In the last blogpost, we wrote about the isolation that comes from living by Lake Superior and how the isolation and a depression seems to live in the bones of Superior, WI.

A closer reading of other readings, experiences and Anthony Bukoski’s work brings out a few more themes – community and resilience.  Bukoski’s Ethel and Eddie danced, Thaddeus Milszewski took geology classes after he returned from the war, widows went on with life.  Nora, the bar owner in The Long Shining Waters took the Lake Superior Circle Tour after the loss of her Superior bar and encouragement of friends.  The bars of Superior are more than watering holes, they are communities where people share their lives and stories.

Barton Sutter in Cold Comfort says it best, “If you love an underdog, then you have to love that city across the harbor. And I do (p. 30).”  I see the people who work to make Superior a better place to live.  I see the community and spirit.  I know where to get good coffee and see friends and take photos of the broken ore boats.  Superior can reflect her harsh climate and has not only rough edges, but gems there, too – trails, Superior Municipal Forest, Wisconsin Point, the Red Mug and the Anchor Bar.  Superior, WI is a very unique place.  I’ve been grateful to give her some of the attention she deserves.

Which brings me to some of the ideas about place that we’ve been able to explore.  We started this project because we wanted to be able to understand how place is created by authors. Place is many things.  For this project, we are interested in place because of the emotional connections people have to place – places they know and love.

When we look at the world as a world of places we see different things.  We see attachments and connections between people and place.  We see worlds of meaning and experience. (Creswell, 2004, p. 11)

Our hope for this project was that we would help create a tool that could be used – as a pedagogy or as a data source – where people could look at their communities, either real or literary, and see a place that was living and breathing.  By stopping to identify the critical elements and describing a scene, the place would go from background to foreground and become a more visible element.  My reflection on this project is that it has worked.  Using places that we know because we have lived in or visited them was a very useful methodology.  It gave us a chance to compare the physical place to the literary one.

When we chose the books for the project, we picked the cities and books for particular reasons.  I chose Duluth-Superior because I don’t live in the Twin Ports, but spend a lot of time there.  Asking about the differences between Duluth and Superior of the locals was getting me nowhere, I had to get creative if I wanted to know more about life on the banks of the mighty St. Louis River.

I think I get it, now. Duluth is the big sister, very connected to the Lake Superior that is visible from most of the city.  It is a place where citizen groups build bike trails, black bears turn up in the parks a few times a year and there is a very big bridge.  People are attached to Duluth.  Superior, though, is different.  She is shaped by Lake Superior’s weather and conditions and the shipping industry, in spite of the invisibility of the Lake in town.  The bars are an important source of community and signs to decorate the landscape.  There are a lot of strong-willed, resilient individuals who are always fighting – life, the weather, the system, the war.  Even when they are not winning, they are fighting.

I’ve noticed that I look at Superior and Duluth differently – I’ve grown to appreciate them as separate cities, unique on their own.  I really appreciate Superior, maybe depressed, but unique in her own way.  That is one of the reasons we study place, to understand and appreciate.

For further reading:

Sad Superior and a Lonely Track Inspector


Here we are in the Twin Ports of Duluth, Minn. and Superior, Wisc.—the second stop on our three-city tour of places in literature. Today, we visited locations from novels and short stories by Anthony Bukoski, Danielle Sosin and Brian Freeman.

For this out-of-towner, it was interesting to see that the inherent tension between the two cities is reflected in the region’s literature. Starting with a middle-of-the-night digging of its own shipping channel in 1871, Duluth seems to have surpassed its neighbor economically, culturally, politically and socially. Ever since, people in Superior have had an inferiority complex.

This was glaringly apparent driving through a downtown district lined with dilapidated storefronts and empty lots. Asking people who lived in Duluth, we got the sense that the only reason to head across the river is to drink at the many dive bars. When we asked people in Superior when they’d head to Duluth, the answer was merely a shrug. The ice was palatable.

This, of course, shows up in the region’s literature. Characters down on their luck head to Superior to drown their sorrows in booze and wait to hit bottom. There’s rarely a rebound. People like to say that Superior is where the region’s aging fleet of ore boats go to die. The same can be true of the region’s citizens.

On a happier note, we visited the location of a scene that truly fit the spirit of our Placing Literature project. Anthony Bukoski wrote a short story about a track inspector who spends every day all day at mile marker 15.9 outside of Superior. It’s a lonely existence, and life goes slowly in this part of the country. He slowly develops a relationship with a widow who lives nearby. It’s a slow burn relationship, each character taking their time getting to know the other. The setting (around mile marker 15.9) reflects the nature of the relationship—starting slow but growing on you as time goes on.

Tomorrow we’re heading up to the North Shore where both the isolation and potential fury of Lake Superior is featured prominently in many novels and short stories.

(from Andrew)

Sights and Sounds of Duluth

As mentioned in the earlier blogpost, Lake Superior dominates the Twin Ports landscape.  One of the most defining landmarks in Duluth is the Areal Lift Bridge.  The ships that come into and leave the harbor have to pass under the bridge (unless they go through the Superior entry, and those photos will be posted another day).  On summer days, Canal Park, at the base of the Areal Lift Bridge is full of people watching the ships – some big “lakers,” bulk carriers mostly over 730 feet with wide bows , and “salties,” the ocean-going ships that are shorter and taller in the middle with more narrow bows.  One of the most familiar sounds is the Captain’s Salute – one long blast, followed by two short – it’s how the captains of the ships and the bridge greet each other.

Areal Lift Bridge, Duluth, from the Lakewalk.

Here is a little bit of sound from Canal Park.

Hat tip – Perfect Duluth Day.

Lake Superior in Literature

In our last post, Andrew talked about how community is reflected in the stories about New Haven.  I’ll talk about how the Twin Ports of Duluth-Superior on Lake Superior are reflected in the books we’ve chosen.

Duluth-Superior is the largest port on the Great Lakes.  Located at the far western-end of the Lakes, coal, grain, sugar beets and taconite are shipped from the port.  The East End of Duluth, along the shore of the Big Lake, is the location of the historic mansions of the titans of the turn-of-the-century industries – iron and timber.  The St. Louis River was once lined with sawmills and choked with logs.  Fishing has also always played a big part of the economy and culture.  The Twin Ports are very connected to nature and very dependent on their natural resources.  The Ojibwe settled at the west end of Lake Superior, where food grows on the water (wild rice).

I drive to Duluth-Superior quite often from Milwaukee.  Once you get north of Eau Claire, there are a lot of trees and not a lot of people.  After driving about 2.5 hours on US 53, you go over a big hill before getting to US 2.  On that big hill, you see Lake Superior spread out before you and a cities in the distance.  This picture of the Twin Ports…on the edge of the wilderness where Lake Superior dominates the landscape is reflected in the literature.

Barton Sutter describes his connection with Lake Superior, “One of the many pleasures of living in Duluth is that you have to look at the lake a lot. You might only mean to get some groceries or a hammer from the hardware store, but on your way you see something so grand, so terrible and so beautiful, that you absorb your daily requirement of humility just by driving down the street.”

The themes that come up over and over again in the books set in the Twin Ports are isolation and the power of Lake Superior.  Gitchi Gumi (Big Lake) is so big and ever-present that she often is a character in the stories.  She provides food, transportation and jobs for those who live near her.  The climate is harsh and her moods change, which contributes to her mystery and power.

The experience of living on Lake Superior is so unique, that it is difficult to describe.  For example, in the last two weeks, in the last half of April, there have been three snowstorms, with some locations getting 2.5 feet of snow.  The stories help give a glimpse into the isolation of living in such a unique place, but also the spirit and resilience of the community that has developed.

Duluth is What?!

In the last post about crowdsourcing, we talked about the fact that crowdsourcing really transfers some of the power of placemaking to those who are making the place. Here at  Placing Literature, we are all about that kind of culture change.

Something that we need to keep in mind, that like any technology or culture change, there is the potential for conflict.  What happens when the crowd challenges the norm?

That brings us to Duluth is Horrible.

Duluth is seriously NOT horrible, but that is the name of a film by Vincent Gargiulo.  Vincent Gargiulo is a filmmaker from San Francisco who had the idea for a film – a lonely-hearts kind of tale.  He had the film title in mind…(insert community name) is Horrible.  But, he did not have a title until it came to him in a dream.  Duluth.  Duluth is Horrible.

Enter crowdsourcing, stage right.  The film idea was pitched on Kickstarter – a crowdsourcing funding site for arts projects – and funding was secured.  So, now Vincent Gargiulo is in Duluth to make a film called Duluth is Horrible.

How do Duluthians feel about this development?  As you might imagine, feelings are mixed.  There are those who welcome any effort to spread the name of Duluth.  There are those who are deeply offended that people would pick on their community.  The social scientist in me points to the fact that some of the funding came from Duluth, local actors are participating and Perfect Duluth Day is talking about the film. 

One blogger in Duluth stated, “With several filmmakers coming to Duluth and making films which extol the … er … um grittier nature of our fair city, I’ve come to wonder if we aren’t letting others define how others see us with their films.”

Good question.  The conflict of crowdsourcing – losing control of an image?  Potential damage from outsiders creating a definition for your community?

More on this in future posts.

See for yourself:

Why Crowdsourcing Matters

Crowdsourcing matters because it provides some the conditions that enable and encourage participation in civil society  – a forum, structure, permission, anonymity (to combat fear of rejection), and a cause to which to contribute.  It does not matter if someone is documenting public restrooms in Manhattan, sharing road closures in an open mapping program, cleaning-up a Wikipedia page – there is a place to contribute personal wisdom and have it accepted.  This power shift has implications – historically, our references maps, encyclopedias travel guides – have been drafted by “experts.” Crowdsourcing turns the tables and assumes we are all experts.  The number of potential applications is limitless!  (We will explore some of the applications in future posts.)

Crowdsourcing is based on the idea of the collective intelligence – that information is collected, aggregated and vetted by the crowd.  It started as a business strategy to solicit unique solutions to problems.  Businesses, like Netflix and Threadless, would issue a proposal with specific rules and goals, and a reward would be given to the winning proposal.

While initially a business application, crowdsourcing can be helpful in settings where public input is considered important.  The reward would be significantly different, instead of a material “prize,” it would be the opportunity to contribute to a cause or effort in a meaningful way.  One of the biggest challenges facing public officials is getting the public to participate.  Some would think that an invitation to participate in a meeting would be enough to solicit participation, but that is not always the case.  The barriers include the inconvenient time or place, feelings of intimidation in the company of experts, feelings that their participation is perfunctory, and cultural differences.

It’s the breaking-down of some (definitely not all) of the barriers that makes crowdsourcing is very interesting and holds so much promise.  Crowdsourcing creates conditions that enable the public to actively engage with and define public spaces.

In the case of Placing Literature, information will be collected on the web and aggregated through a Google Map application, with an option of adding photos. People will get to describe the places they read about – which is one of the key components of “placemaking.”  According to the Project for Public Spaces, placemaking involves “looking at, listening to, and asking questions of the people who live, work and play in a particular space, to discover their needs and aspirations.”

We hope that we are offering a tool to help people see not only the scenes (places) they read about in literature, but a structure to help describe the physical places important to them.  The hope is people will have the means to describe their neighborhoods and public spaces, but also their needs and aspirations for those spaces.

For further reading:

  • Project for Public Spaces:
  • Intro to Placemaking, City Repair:
  • Brabham, D. C. (2009). Crowdsourcing the Public Participation Process for Planning Projects. Planning Theory, 8(3), 242–262.
  • Sui, D., Elwood, S., & Goodchild, M. (Eds.). (2012). Crowdsourcing Geographic Knowledge: Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) in Theory and Practice (2013th ed.). Springer.
  • Zook, M., Graham, M., Shelton, T., & Gorman, S. (2010). Volunteered Geographic Information and Crowdsourcing Disaster Relief: A Case Study of the Haitian Earthquake. World Medical & Health Policy, 2(2), 7.