Tag Archives: placemaking

Rhode Island on Placing Literature

Rhode Islanders, where are you? It’s time to show off the literary places in your part of the world. That may be coming true after the Rhode Island Library Association featured Placing Literature in its latest newsletter.


Placing Literature

By Megan Black
Research and Education Librarian, Providence College

I read The Time Traveler’s Wife my senior year of college. I was living in Chicago at the time where parts of the book takes place. I have a distinct memory of reading a passage that takes place in a bar on Belmont Ave and freaking out, “OH MY GOD, I know that place!!!” Subsequent passages took place on the street where I worked or other stomping grounds, and I was equally excited. There are other books where I had similar reactions due shared experience in a story’s setting. Those feelings of excitement and connectedness stay with me, long after I’ve forgotten plot details and characters.

Several years later I met Andrew Williams at his book reading in New Haven, CT. I loved that his book,  Learning to Haight , took place in real-life San Francisco, and we shared our love reading novels that transport the reader to real settings because it add that extra layer of connectedness. He told me about a project he and two friends were working on to map scenes from novels that take place in the real world.

The idea had come to him after mapping scenes from his own book using Google maps, “I had more than 1,000 views in 24 hours.” To get the project going, Andrew and his sister-in-law, Kathleen Colin Williams who is a PhD candidate in in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, applied for and received the Reintegrate Grant through the Arts Council of Greater New Haven in 2012. The funds are intended to encourage scientists and artists to collaborate on research projects. Andrew and Kathleen spent the next six months researching the role of place in novels that were set in New Haven, CT; San Francisco, CA; and Duluth, MN. Andrew’s friend Steven Young joined the group to create an online platform to map the books. They realized that they had created a unique project that was perfect for crowd-sourcing, and  Placing Literature was formally launched at New Haven, CT’s International Arts and Ideas Festival in 2013. Since then, more than 3,000 places have been mapped by readers, authors, and librarians.

The site has featured authors and allows users to explore the map by author, title, or place. It’s a great way to find literature that is set in a place you love or about to visit, or to map out travel destinations based on where your favorite author has set characters. Anyone with a Google login is able to add to the map.

There was only one place in Rhode Island mapped when I set out to write this article, which was the McFagan & McFagan Funeral Home from Waking the Merrow by Heather Rigney. There is a fair amount of literature that takes place in our beloved state, so I set out to add some additional places. I found two lists of books that take place in Rhode Island: Warwick Public Library’s “Fiction Set in RI”  list, and Quahog.org’s list of books.

I read  The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr. aka Houdini by retired Providence College professor Peter Johnson (a delightful YA book if you’re interested). It takes place on the East Side, and while generic areas of Hope Street are mentioned, the zoo is the only specific place named that could be mapped.

It’s much easier to map locations after doing a location search from the “Explore” box at the top of the landing page. This way, you’re able to zoom in and move the pin if Google doesn’t originally place it in the right spot. Once you’re on the map page, click “Add Scene.” A pin will appear on the map, which you can drag to the exact location, and you’re prompted to fill out information about the scene: title; author; what happens in the scene; where the scene takes place; etc. Click submit, and your scene is added. If you make a mistake (like not moving the pin to the appropriate location, like I did…) you can send an email, and they respond fairly quickly.

Placing Literature also has various collections of mapped books that various groups have added (these can be found by clicking “Collections” (http://www.placingliterature.com/collections) at the bottom right portion of the page). My favorite is the collection curated by the Sherlock Holmes Society. The screenshot below is just a portion of everything mapped by the group.

Andrew, Kathleen, and Steven continue working to improve and promote Placing Literature. When I spoke to Andrew most recently, I asked him if he’d be interested in presenting on the project at libraries in Rhode Island. The short answer is yes, but the longer answer is much more interesting that a regular presentation. “I started an author speaking series at the New Haven Free Public Library called Get Lit in New Haven. A group of literary cartographers gets together to read and map a book set in New Haven. The author comes to do a reading and answer questions about setting a novel in the city. We had two events last year, and we are now going to do one per quarter,” and he said he’d love to work with RI librarians to help create similar programs here.

Placing Literature is an easy way to bring out the literary cartographer in all of us.

IndieReader Author Spotlight: Rachel Van Dyken

Author-Spotlight-VanDykenRachel Van Dyken is our IndieReader.com Author Spotlight for December. Rachel will be mapping her next book that comes out December 18, using the places she’s mapped on Placing Literature to tease her fans as she leads up to launch.

What a fantastic idea! Indie authors often don’t have the marketing resources of traditional publishers, so the ability to engage with readers in creative ways grows in importance. Virtual book tours, podcast interviews, countdowns on social media can be passé. Unveiling a new book one place at a time is new. It’s exciting! And readers will love it.

Follow Rachel’s literary road trip as she takes us through Chicago, the setting of her latest novel, Enforce. The book follows the same plot points as a previous novel, Elite, but from the perspective of two different characters. Readers of Elite will think they know the whole story, but they would be wrong.

Check out Rachel’s map here.

Placemaking in Connecticut

I’ve been forced to think about place much more than usual recently. The Economic Development Office of Connecticut (EDC) asked me to join the state’s committee on placemaking, and last week, the group of 80 citizens gathered in the Old Statehouse Building in Hartford to talk about how Connecticut could create places where people would want to live, work and visit. Governor Dannel Malloy was there as well, giving the opening remarks before we broke into smaller groups for more intimate discussions.

As people talked about the places that made them and why those places were so instrumental, you got the sense that placemaking meant different things to different people. The crowd was arts centric, consisting mainly of people on the board at arts and cultural organizations from around the state. Funding for the arts, access to the arts, education about the arts came up a lot. But there were also a fair amount of entrepreneurs and educators sprinkled around the room, and my group talked a lot about investing in infrastructure–public transit, high speed internet, job development–which I guess is what you’d expect. Then the conversation drifted to efforts to give people ownership over their community. Give people a stake in their neighborhoods and they will step up to help make it a wonderful and unique place to live, work and visit.

This got me thinking about SeeClilckFix, a government engagement app that lets citizens report non-emergency issues to their local government that then responds to each individual issue until it is resolved. Things like potholes, broken street lights and garbage dumping are commonly reported issues, but people also make requests for park and bus benches, make beautification requests and even suggest policing policy changes. Some users have been taking it one step further by organizing neighborhood cleanup days and snow shoveling patrols on the site and on third-party apps that use the SeeClickFix API. (disclaimer: I’m currently participating in a paid fellowship at SeeClickFix where I am learning how to run a tech startup from the company’s senior management team).

The idea behind SeeClickFix is that citizens are more likely to care about their neighborhoods if they are an active participant in the community, interacting with their neighbors, business owners and local government. Giving people an opportunity to stake a claim, take responsibility and engage with each other makes a place an attractive place to live, work and visit. Government works better, people want to live in interesting places, entrepreneurs are attracted to the area and local jobs are created.

How can we combine this community engagement with an interest in the arts?

It’s easy to see how placingmaking through art can be a great way to get people to enjoy a place, but getting citizens to participate in art can lead to even better engagement. Bussing inner-city kids to see the Yale Symphony is a start, but a more powerful placemaking strategy would be to get the state’s poet laureate to come to New Haven to lead writing courses for young, aspiring writers, poets and rap artists. Other cities have used this concept by encouraging local graffiti artists to create murals on buildings in urban centers, getting people from the community to beautify the places they live while discouraging tagging. Youth are exposed to art and culture, but in a way that makes sense in the world in which they live and encourages a stake in the community.

So how can Placing Literature help? I don’t know. We’ve talked about making outreach to teachers and school librarians to show them how to use our site to build curriculum around literature and place. Maybe we step up those efforts. How cool would it be for a high school english class to read literature that takes place in their neighborhood, map the locations where they take place and then go visit those places so they can compare the fictional place to the real place? In addition to giving students an enhanced understanding of the book and setting, the lesson would give them a better appreciation for these places and encourage them to participate in the community. The effect would be a citizenry that wants to preserve local culture and make their neighborhoods a wonderful place to live, work and visit.

I thinks it’s time to make it happen. If you are an educator and would like to help, please contact us at info (at) placingliterature.com.

How Placing Literature Creates Connections to Neighborhoods

Our last blog post was about experiential learning – or learning through experience.  How might that work for Placing Literature?

Here’s our vision.  Take the Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle (see last week’s post) and superimpose our process on it.


To see how this would work in practice, why not use one of the Lake Superior novels?  In The Long-Shining Waters, the main character owns a bar.  When I read the book, I recognized the bar immediately.  So for me, the way the cycle worked:

1. Read The Long-Shining Waters by Danielle Sosin. (Concrete Experience)

2. While reading the novel, I recognized the bar owned by the main character, The Anchor Bar in Superior, Wisconsin. (Reflective Observation in my recognition of the bar)

3. I plotted the bar on the map.  This action meant that I thought about the book, and I thought about the bar and wrote about the bar and the neighborhood. (Abstract Conceptualization by working out my ideas in the app)

4. I had a new awareness next time I went to The Anchor Bar.  I closely examined all of the décor, listened to the conversations and chatted with the bartender.  As someone who does not live in Superior, this experience was important to me because it wasn’t just a bar, it was THE Anchor Bar, it was Nora’s bar.  I now had an emotional connection to the place.  (Actively Experimenting with my new found appreciation of The Anchor)

Our hope is for a lot of things with Placing Literature.  We want to create conversations around literature and places.  We want to create connections between people and neighborhoods.  But, mostly we want people to love all of the great, living places that we call home and (hopefully) reawaken the emotional connection to those places.

Place vs. Setting

There’s a great message thread on Goodreads right now among some of its most active users about whether the site should add a feature similar to Placing Literature (http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1401673-new-website-placing-literature).

Most people are saying that they would appreciate being able to plot and track literary places, but a minority are saying that it wouldn’t be useful or that Goodreads should focus on its existing capabilities around setting. One example that a user brought up was that Placing Literature was too specific and too rooted in the present. The user thought that a generic place and time stamp would be more useful, such as 1870s London.

Reading the thread (I’m unable to post due to the board being invitation only), I can’t help but think that some Goodreaders are confusing place with setting. And that’s understandable. Readers are approaching place from a literary perspective, and scholars have always talked about setting in this way. But to geographers there is a difference between place and setting. Hopefully, I can help clarify what that difference is, and in doing so, talk about why place is so important.

 Katie has spent several postings on this blog talking about place and the goal of this project as it relates to place, so I’ll let her take over here:

 “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.

“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.”


-Why We Study Place, June 18, 2013

Setting, on the other hand, is a place in the context of a particular place in time. Piccadilly Circus is a place. 1870s London is a setting. The distinction is important because you can’t visit a setting. Only imagination can take you to Sherlock Holmes’s London. But anyone can walk around Piccadilly Circus, eating roasted chestnuts while people watching.

That is why Placing Literature is important. We want to connect readers to the places they are reading about in hopes of both enhancing the reading experience and creating community around those places.

I don’t know if Goodreads will add place to its long list of features. I hope it does, and when it’s ready, we’ll be happy to share our rich database of literary places that is being created, edited and accessed by the community.


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: http://www.pps.org/reference/what_is_placemaking/
  • Intro to Placemaking, City Repair: http://cityrepair.org/how-to/placemaking/
  • 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.