Alison Garden is a Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow at University College Dublin and was awarded a Postdoctoral and Early Career bursary by the IAAS earlier this year. You can follow her on Twitter at @notsecretGarden.


‘All literature begins with geography’,

Robert Frost


The ‘Digital Turn’ in humanities scholarship has led to the embrace of a number of new research tools, including Geographic Information Systems (GIS). I was absolutely delighted to receive the 2016 Irish Association of American Studies Postdoctoral Award, which I used to fund my attendance at the ‘Geographical Information Systems’ summer school at the University of Lancaster, part of the Lancaster Summer Schools programme in Corpus Linguistics and other Digital methods. GIS is an area within geography that enables the production of digital maps from data mined from various sources: but GIS systems are as much data-handling systems as mapping systems. Using GIS software, such as ArcGIS and Quantum GIS (Q-GIS), is becoming increasingly popular with humanities scholars (both within and outside the often nebulously-defined ‘Digital Humanities’) to create resources to grapple with data in novel ways and disseminate findings in engaging, accessible formats.

But how are these new tools useful for those of us working with qualitative data, such as textual and literary sources, rather than quantitative data? GIS can be used in various ways and excellent examples of public-facing projects include, an interactive global map tagging poems to place and, created by a team based at the University of Edinburgh, led by Professor James Loxley, uses GIS (amongst other digital tools) to mine and map the literary archive of Edinburgh. As a scholar of the Atlantic world, my work traces, explicates and complicates the connections between Atlantic literatures, cultures and histories. Such connections are found in curious places, often transhistorical and nearly always transcultural. We often talk about ‘mapping’ the relationships between texts but I wanted to acquire the skills to make these mappings more tangible: what would a map of such connections actually look like?

Under the expert tuition of Professor Ian Gregory and James Perry, a PhD candidate at Lancaster University, a diverse group of PhD students and postdocs spent four very busy days getting to grips with the basics of several GIS programmes, including ArcGIS, Google Earth, Google Maps and a frustrating, failed attempt to get QGis to download onto my ancient Macbook. Through working with databases, both pre-existing and ones we created ourselves, we worked through how to construct our own maps, exploring how to manipulate and analyse spatial data. We learnt where to find examples of beautiful old maps ( and and how to upload these old maps onto ArcGIS, using Google Earth to georeference these with accurate coordinates.

Most immediately, I plan to use these new skills to digitally map the travels and literary afterlives of Roger Casement, the Irish nationalist and human rights campaigner, whose career and politics took him to the Congo Free State, the Putumayo region of the Amazon, the United States and Germany, amongst other places. However, the impact that this course will have on my future research stretches far beyond this current project, enabling me to create visual and interactive resources for multiple audiences, including academics, students and the wider public. Literature from the United States and the Atlantic space is so driven by travel – of people, material cultures and ideas – that using GIS methods would be an enormously productive way of grappling with the vast internal geographies of these literatures.

However, resources created through GIS often generate more questions than answers; Ian Gregory reminded us at multiple points that scholars ought to think of these tools as a means of furthering our analysis and interpretation, not as end results in and of themselves. My time in Lancaster got me thinking not just about how to trace poetic or political influence as plotted spatial data, but also left me with methodological questions about what it means to ‘read’ texts, and how cartographic modes of academic enquiry open up literature in hugely creative and invigorating ways. The relationship between literature and place has always fascinated me, from Irish dinnseanchas, narratives of migration and the myth of the West in the popular culture of the United States, but this course challenged me to reflect further about how maps themselves influence our interpretations of texts, culture and society – and not always unproblematically, as postcolonial theorists have emphasised.[1] Exploring the opportunities afforded by GIS, this summer school encouraged me to think about new ways into texts, new ways of engaging with cultural echoes and new ways of tracing the complex, echoing histories of Atlantic interexchange.



[1] Graham Huggan contends that colonial map-making projects entail ‘the reinscription, enclosure and hierarchization of space, which provide[s] an analogue for the acquisition, management and reinforcement of colonial power’ (115). It is also worth remembering the cartographic violence done to North America by white European settlers, asserting that ‘seventeenth-century maps of North America reveal a progressive loss of [Native American] names, for which names of English origin are substituted’ (185). See Graham Huggan, ‘Decolonizing the Map: Post-Colonialism, Post-Structuralism and the Cartographic Connection’, Ariel: a Review of International English Literature, 20: 4 (1989): 115-31; and Mary Hamer, ‘Putting Ireland on the Map.’ Textual Practice, 3: 2 (1989): 184-201.