Networks and the Commons at C19

Ed Whitley (Lehigh U) and Ryan Cordell (Northeastern U) organized a roundtable on “Networks and the Commons: A Roundtable on Digital, Archival, and Theoretical Approaches to Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture” as part of the C19 conference in Chapel Hill in March 2014, and invited me to speak on the bookstores project. The abstract and an excerpt of my remarks appear below.

Ryan Cordell, Northeastern University, “Viral Texts as a National Reading Commons?”
Ellen Gruber Garvey, New Jersey City University, “Scrapbook Networks”
Kristen Doyle Highland, New York University, “Bookstore Geographies”
Lauren F. Klein, Georgia Institute of Technology, “Some Unrepresentable Things”
Joanne van der Woude, University of Groningen, “Introducing: Amerigo”

Chair: Edward Whitley, Lehigh University

Panel Abstract:

This roundtable brings together a group of scholars to discuss how networks of people, places, and texts function to create different versions of “the commons” in nineteenth-century literary culture. The shared assumption of these scholars is that “the commons” as a category of analysis is the product of networks, and that the study of such networks should attend equally to archival research, the use of digital tools, and engagements with theories about print and the public sphere. These scholars will present a few illustrative anecdotes from their research, reflect on their methodological approaches, and then engage with each other (and the members of the audience) in productive conversation.



My own presentation will focus on the work of GIS technologies in humanities research using three use examples from my project on antebellum NYC bookstores.

Recent studies on the forms and functions of such diverse spaces as nineteenth-century libraries, domestic parlors, and urban streets, as well as classic spatial theory works like Soja, Lefebvre, and deCerteau, have convincingly, if differently, argued that literary practices are spatial practices. We encounter material texts in spaces and places that shape those interactions. My research combines an interest with this dynamic function of space—of the shaping potential of geography, architecture, and the built environment—with the historical development of the bookstore as a literary and cultural institution.  If the retail bookstore was a site in which forms of physical and social commons were constituted (and Americans from the 18th century to today would argue so), then space and place are essential categories of analysis.

But this mutually informing relationship between the literary and the spatial is more than a conceptual approach. It’s also a material one, with significant implications for methods of research and forms of evidence. In my remarks here, I want to focus on the use of digital methods—and specifically, GIS—as a way to “read” literary and spatial archives and a means of connecting different forms of evidence, in this case, to explore the implications of space and place on the development of antebellum New York City’s retail book landscape. And I want to emphasize the digital not simply as a source or a final means of visualizing results, but also, as an intermediary that can offer alternative perspectives on the material archive.

To do this, I’ll offer three brief use examples:

#1 Mapping the Source Material: Using GIS to re-read texts as spatial evidence

#2 Mapping the Bookstores: Using GIS to visualize place-based evidence; spatial archives in literary research

#3 Mapping the Street: Examining spatial contexts as part of describing local literary cultures