July 3, 2019

Team traces social networks of 19th-century cultural figures

Project examines social factors that sustained the careers of writers, artists, editors and publishers

Once upon a time, long before email, Facebook and Snapchat, people had to network the old-fashioned way: by getting together in person. A new research project goes back in time to the 19th century to examine the lives of writers, artists, editors and publishers. The main question: How did social networks sustain the careers of these cultural figures?

This research has a particular emphasis on women. That’s because in Victorian times, women were not always welcome in the spaces of the literary club or the publisher’s dinner, but they did have opportunities to network in each other’s homes, leading to lucrative professional opportunities as well as inspiring friendships.

Researchers developed a tool called the Map of Victorian Literary Sociability, which geo-locates the residences of writers, artists, editors and publishers to examine factors that may have facilitated careers and collaboration in 19th-century London. It represents the spatial networks of a variety of Victorian cultural figures and tracks their movements in urban centres and beyond, and has looked at the movements of famous Victorians such as Charles Dickens and George Eliot.

This project involves a multidisciplinary team of researchers from the departments of English and geography.

"Many connections that Victorian writers had have disappeared from the historical record: You don't write long letters to the person who lives next door to you!” says Dr. Karen Bourrier, PhD, associate professor in the Department of English. “This project is the first attempt to use newly digitized historical maps and cutting-edge research techniques in geography to map the Victorian literary scene on a large scale.”

Researchers gathered information for the map from a long list of historical resources including census data, building information, maps and information related to geocoding, which is the process of adding geographic coordinates — latitude and longitude — to addresses. While a historic address may be known, it has to be geo-located to see where it is today, as street names and layouts may have changed, or a suburb might have been absorbed into a city.

This project brings together two very different approaches to tracing life histories and spatial trajectories of individuals as they moved through the now historic landscape.

“Developments in cartography, and the digital curation of maps in international libraries — until recently only accessed via specialist archives — have facilitated this research,” explains Dr. Dan Jacobson, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Geography. “Access to historical digital maps has allowed us to reach back in time, not only through the textual descriptions of the writers of the Victorian era, but also to contextualize and view the places of writers through the lens of the cartography of mapped landscapes and cities.”

Jacobson adds this research approach could be applied to other geographic research that seeks to understand spatiotemporal patterns, from areas as wide-ranging as community epidemiology to mapping the distribution and evolution of social media events around natural disasters.

Two undergraduate students and two graduate students are part of the research team. For Sonia Jarmula, English master’s student, the project has been a valuable experience, and she believes more collaborations like this would benefit students in the humanities.

“This has been an incredible opportunity to learn more about authors that I have read and loved, looking at the places where they lived and seeing how their surroundings might have impacted their work,” says Jarmula. “I get to use my research skills in an entirely new way. It’s one thing to read articles and books and come up with an essay; it’s something else entirely to be able to find someone’s house from 150 years ago when it looked like it would be impossible.”

The project involved collaboration with Spatial and Numeric Data Services in Libraries and Cultural Resources (LCR) with director Peter Peller part of the project team.

The Map of Victorian Literacy Sociability was launched publicly in May during the conference of the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada at the University of Calgary.

Project funding came from a sub-grant under the project Academic Research and University Libraries: Creating a New Model for Collaboration, led by Tom Hickerson in LCR and funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Map of Victorian Literacy Sociability is one of several research projects under this unique initiative.

The Map of Victorian Literacy Sociability project members include Dr. Karen Bourrier, PhD (associate professor, Department of English), Dr. Dan Jacobson, PhD (associate professor, Department of Geography) and students David Lapins (Geography BSc), Hannah Anderson (English MA), Sonia Jarmula (English MA) and Kaelyn Macaulay (English BA)

Project collaborators in LCR include Christie Hurrell, Ingrid Reiche, Peter Peller and John Brosz.