Pulling spaces out of narrative

While I’m looking at (broadly) how narratives can be told across space, I gatecrashed an interesting seminar today looking at how spaces (thats places, not the space between the words) can be pulled out of narratives and mapped. Its all part of the Spatial Humanities project at Lancaster University. Patricia Murrieta-Flores visited Southampton (her old alma mater) today to share some of the work she has been doing as a proof of concept for the idea.

In the first example Patricia explained how the team and processed the eighteenth century records of the Registrar General to co-locate clusters of deaths by cholera, diarrhea and dysentery. The idea (as I understand it) is that they input digitised versions of the historical texts (which they call the corpus) and the system parses and pulls out the place names, matches them against gazetteers, and maps them in GIS. The output shows the clusters on a map of the UK. This isn’t easy to automate, and its still quite a handcrafted process, because of different historical names for places, different spellings, different gazetteers, and disambiguation (does a mention of Lancaster, for example, mean the city in the UK, the county in Pennsylvania, or Mr Lancaster?).

What they discovered wasn’t surprising, the largest spikes of co-incident death by the three diseases corresponded with three of the occurrences of a cholera epidemic. Patricia’s story though had an interesting resonance with the story of John Snow, the “legendary” epidemiologist. During the first spike highlighted in Patricia’s work Snow suggested that the disease may be water-borne and not, as previously thought, miasmic. The second spike, in 1854 occurs as Snow is analysing data himself, to identify a particular water-pump in Broad Street as the centre on an outbreak. By the time of the third spike, in 1866, the authorities had begun to base their advice to citizens upon John Snow’s learning and the fourth and largest spike two years later, is not co-incident with an epidemic  but a result of better reporting because of Snow’s work.

In the second example Patricia touched on literature rather than historical record, charting mentions of the lake district places in the work of 18th century writers. The output showed how what began as a stopping off point on the way to Scotland, became a destination in its own right as the century (and the railways) developed.

Of course, this process has revealed nothing particularly new, but both these experiments were always meant as proof of concept. The exciting work, discovering new truths from less well known historical and literary narratives is about to begin…

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