Kristen Doyle Highland

Early American Literature, Book History, Spatial Humanities

Columbia Book History Colloquium


On Tuesday, March 25, 2014, I presented a talk entitled “Mapping the Bookstore in Nineteenth-Century New York City” at Columbia University’s wonderful Book History Colloquium.

See the announcement and upcoming talks here.

Here is a brief opening excerpt, followed by my presentation slides (view on SlideShare here):

I’m here to talk about the nineteenth-century New York City bookstore, but to frame some of my concerns in this talk, I’d like to begin in the present day with a bookstore probably well-known by many of you–the East Village’s beleagured but resilient St. Mark’s Bookshop. Facing eviction over rising rents in the fall of 2011, the bookstore rallied its supporters and earned a rent reduction from landlord Cooper Union. Defenses of the bookstore were plenty and passionate, and they focused on the value of the physical space of the bookstore to ideals of urban life and community, painting the bookstore as a last bastion of local character and identity. Terry McCoy, owner of the Bookshop stressed: “I want to make the point that we’re important to the community and that we’re an important cultural institution.” Writer Salman Rushdie added, “The St. Marks Bookshop is as much a New York institution as the Cooper Union is. I urge you not to make this irreversible cultural mistake.” And an online petition urged supporters to “Sign it if you’re sick of watching New York City’s cultural touchstones go down the toilet day after day.”

Cultural touchstone. New York Institution. Cultural institution. This is the rhetoric most often invoked in defenses of the brick-and-mortar store. As always, individuals have a variety of options other than the physical bookstore for obtaining reading material. What is at stake isn’t whether we’re reading or even what we’re reading, but whether specific ideals of urban community and experience and local neighborhood identities enshrined in the independent bookstore are under attack. It is this cultural value assigned the physical space of the bookstore that most interests me—a structural ambivalence in which profit is calculated by cultural good rather than by number of books sold.  What is it, then, about the physical bookstore that is at once stubbornly local—grounded in communities and integrated into individual experience—and also grandly abstract—a symbol of communal and cultural values? How did the bookstore-as-ideal come to be special–separated from its mundane retail functions and inspiring energetic advocacy and philanthropy (if not always more actual book-buying)? How, in short, did the bookstore become not simply a store, but rather a cultural institution?

The American dedicated retail bookstore was a nineteenth-century creation, largely after 1830, in a confluence of technological innovation, economic expansion, trade specialization, and American literary growth. As earlier in the century, booksellers were often also publishers in some form, and many bookstores dealt in both wholesale and retail. But if there’s one thing I want to emphasize in this talk, it is this: the years from 1820 to 1860 mark a historical period in which the forms and functions of a retail bookstore are emerging, accompanied by all the experimentation, uncertainty, and diversity that process entails.


unCOMMON Salon talk at NYU

What follows is the announcement for my talk on nineteenth-century NYC bookstores at NYU’s Bobst Library’s unCOMMON Salon Series at the Research Commons. The series hosts excellent interdisciplinary talks from scholars at NYU–see announcements here!

Announcement and RSVP here.


                                                                                                             Map Credit: K. Highland

The Bookstore in Nineteenth-Century

New York City

A talk by Kristen Highland

Wednesday, April 2nd from 6:00 – 7:30pm
Bobst Library, 5th Floor West,  Media Viewing Center   

The romantic image of the independent bookstore—haven of book lovers, cultural bulwark, and literary playground—obscures the historical reality of selling books—the rapid turnover, looming bottom lines, and peripatetic stores. Yet bookstores have always been more than the sales tallies or even the books lining the shelves. This talk examines the social and cultural life of bookstores in New York City from 1820 to 1860. Using GIS technology to map bookstore locations and movements, I trace the retail landscape of a growing bookselling center and present select case studies to explore how the physical spaces and marketing strategies of nineteenth-century retail booksellers helped shape the definition and familiar form of today’s bookstores. An understudied component of literary history, the retail bookstore participated in the lively and varied cultural life of antebellum New York City. In the shadow of today’s escalating panic over the future of the brick-and-mortar store, it is critical to explore the past of the bookstore.


Kristen Doyle Highland is a PhD candidate in the English Department at NYU. Her dissertation project focuses on the social and cultural life of antebellum New York City bookstores, and broader research interests include book history, spatial humanities, and early American culture. She is a graduate coordinator of NEWYORKSCAPES, a graduate-faculty research collaborative on cultural geography and humanities scholarship at the Humanities Initiative.

Light refreshments will be served.


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


Cultural Geography and Graduate Scholarship in the Humanities

poster for conference 2

NewYorkScapes, a research and working group on NYC spaces and cultural productions, hosted an event, “Urban Humanities: A Symposium on research development, digital archives, and documentary practices” on April 11th, 2014 at NYU’s Humanities Initiative. Colleague Blevin Shelnutt and I organized a graduate student roundtable on cultural geography and digital methods. The roundtable brought together graduate students in a variety of humanities disciplines who are using digital methods to explore the cultural functions of space and place.

The call for the roundtable appears below.

For more on the event, click here.

For more on NEWYORKSCAPES, a research collaborative at NYU’s Humanities Initiative, click here.


Urban Humanities: A symposium on research development, digital archives, and documentary practices

Presented by NEWYORKSCAPES and the Humanities Initiative at NYU

Friday, April 11, 2014



“Cultural Geography and Graduate Scholarship in the Humanities: A Roundtable on Digital Methods”

April 11, 2014




We invite graduate students working on projects that use digital methods to explore cultural geography to participate in a seminar-style roundtable as part of the upcoming Urban Humanities Symposium at the Humanities Initiative at NYU on Friday, April 11, 2014.

This roundtable aims to facilitate an open discussion among MA and PhD students interested in applying the concepts and tools of digital scholarship and cultural geography to humanities-based research. We hope the occasion provides an opportunity for graduate students across disciplines to connect with one another to share ideas, questions, and challenges related to the design of research projects involving digital tools, the methods and concepts of spatial analysis, and/or the potential contribution of such methods to humanities scholarship. Each participant will have an opportunity to first, briefly present his or her current research or project plans, and then engage in a larger discussion about spatial humanities methods and processes.

Digital approaches to cultural geography and urban humanities may include GIS and mapping, 3D modeling, creating spacio-cultural datasets, designing repositories for data, or creative visualizations and articulations of space and place. Graduate student participants may be at any stage in their projects, from conception and planning through completed product. If you are interested in sharing your project and participating in this cross-disciplinary discussion, please send a brief 250-word project description/expression of interest to Kristen Highland and Blevin Shelnutt at

Geospatial Literary Studies, MLA 2014

I had the pleasure of presenting on David Wrisley’s (American U of Beirut) “Geospatial Literary Studies” panel (#782) at MLA this past January. Along with co-presenters Anupam Basu (Washington U, St. Louis), Anne Stachura (U of Texas, Pan-American), and Rachael Scarborough King (UC, Santa Barbara), we traveled through the streets and pages of 18th century London, then to the 2009 H1N1 epidemic, the 19th century NYC bookstore and, finally, back to the 18th century with continental diplomatic dispatches. It was a great ride.

For a storify of Tweets from the session, click here.

And for another view on the panel and geocritical approaches to literature, as well as information on a proposed follow-up Special Session for MLA 2015 (“Geocritical Explorations Within the Text”), see Moacir P. de Sá Pereira’s (U of Chicago) blog post here.


The abstract for my talk, “Locating the Bookstore: Antebellum Literary Landscapes and Contemporary Interpretive Practice,” appears below.


Abstract for Session, “Geospatial Literary Studies”

“Locating the Bookstore: Antebellum Literary Landscapes and Contemporary Interpretive Practice”

Recent research in literary studies acknowledges the significance of the spaces of reading to the formation and function of literary cultures, yet has entirely neglected the bookstore as one of these formative spaces. By focusing on and surveying the bookstore as a specific literary space, I argue for the radical materiality of literary and cultural experience and explore interpretive practices and methods for analyzing and describing a local geography of culture. My presentation for the “Geospatial Literary Studies” panel will focus on two related projects: one a methodological and historical project mapping the bookstore in the physical and cultural space of antebellum New York City, and another a disciplinary project to emplace the bookstore and other commercial forms in literary studies.

Informed by location data contained in city directories, advertisements, and book catalogues, GIS technology offers a new and rich perspective of the literary landscape of antebellum New York City. Using original maps created and animated through ArcGIS and plotting the locations and movements of bookstores, I will explore the unique patterns, insights, and questions suggested by a geographic analysis of antebellum bookstores with larger implications for understanding the commercial topography of the antebellum book trade and the various functions of book spaces in the cultural geography of an expanding urban center. Further, by grounding discussion of literary culture in a specific public institution and focusing on physical and cultural geography, a number of understudied genres, such as trade cards, fire insurance maps, and commercial panoramas emerge as significant contemporary methods that both document the bookstore and attempt to map and read urban space. Considered as interpretive practices alongside digital GIS, these genres—currently overlooked by literary scholars—emerge as valuable cultural productions. In seeking a more complete image of nineteenth-century New York City’s literary and cultural topography by making visible the networks and geographies in which bookstores operated, my presentation will demonstrate the promises and challenges of exploring the spatial dimensions of literary culture.


Mapping the Bookstore

For the SHARP conference in July 2013, I partnered with Jim Green and Paul Erickson on a panel exploring the physical and social spaces of 18th and 19th century American bookstores. Michael Winship chaired the panel, which was also sponsored by the Bibliographical Society of America. The panel description and an abstract of my presentation appears below.

SHARP 2013 Panel

Selling Spaces: Geographies of the Bookstore in 18th and 19th Century America

This panel engages the spatial dimensions of book history by focusing on one space—the bookstore—in 18th and 19th century America.  The topographies and contours of retail bookselling in America before 1900 remain buried beneath dominant narratives such as the rise of the big-house publisher and larger-than-life individuals like Parson Weems. Yet it is during this period that retail booksellers emerged as significant participants in and arbiters of the American book market, developing professional and trade networks, experimenting with advertising and retail strategy, and acting as mediators between producers and consumers of books. This panel explores the spaces of retail bookstores with several broad questions in mind: How do we define “bookstore” in historical contexts?  What methods and materials might we employ to study the retail business of print? And how would increased attention to retailing spaces and practices inflect our conceptions of “print culture”?

From the business practices of Benjamin Franklin’s colonial Philadelphia bookshop to antebellum New York City’s diverse and ever-shifting constellation of bookstores, from the interior layout of stores to the diverse wares sold to patrons, the bookstore is a key venue in the social and cultural geographies that organized individuals’ relationships to print, to forms of knowledge, and to the environments in which they moved. In exploring and mapping the space of the bookstore, this panel is interested in a broad approach to geography—in considering the interplay of social, economic, and trade geographies that emerged from bookstores, as well as the functions of physical space and cartographies of location in impacting the relationship between the individual and the book. Considered together, the papers of “Selling Spaces” argue for the crucial role of bookstores in shaping the cultural geographies that animated 18th and 19th century America.


Mapping the Bookstore: Retail Cartographies in Antebellum New York City

Kristen Doyle Highland, SHARP 2013


Using data collected from city directories, advertisements, and book catalogs with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software, this presentation introduces original maps depicting the locations, movements, and patterns of retail bookstores in antebellum New York City.  My talk will include analysis of these maps, along with evidence from news articles, city guides, and bookseller memoirs, to offer new insights into several aspects of nineteenth-century American print culture, including the development of specific book retailing strategies, the diverse forms of retail book outlets, and the roles of bookstores in the everyday cultural lives of urban residents.

Examinations of historical retailing practices remain underrepresented in book history studies. Yet it was more than the increased output of New York City’s publishing presses or innovations in printing and binding that transformed the city into a literary capital by the mid-nineteenth century. Bookstores—their locations and appearances, their stock and sales methods, as well as the people who operated them and the customers who patronized them—were significant participants in and shapers of New York’s literary and print culture. These stores, to use book historian Adrian Johns’ words, demonstrate “print culture in the making.” As Johns reminds us, the collected products and practices that compose “print culture” accrue significance and meaning only through “the hard, continuous work of real people in real places.”

Locating retail booksellers—the “real people” and “real places”—in the dynamic landscape of antebellum New York will help us survey a significant commercial and cultural aspect of the book trades during a seminal period in American literary production as well as the diverse contributions of bookstores to nineteenth-century urban life. More than simply a story about one place in one time—though it is that as well—antebellum New York City bookstores tell us about the textures of urban culture in a rapidly expanding metropolis and the values and forms of a literary marketplace that sold more books to more people than ever before.