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The Infinite Atlas Project, Or a Supposedly Fun Project the Library Didn’t Create

Read, hot & digitized: Librarians and the digital scholarship they love In this series, librarians from UTL’s Arts, Humanities and Global Studies Engagement Team briefly present, explore and critique existing examples of digital scholarship.  Our hope is that these monthly reviews will inspire critical reflection of and future creative contributions to the growing fields of digital scholarship.

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is considered, by some, a masterpiece of late 20th century American literature. The Harry Ransom Center’s acquisition of Wallace’s personal papers in 2010 gave his work a higher profile among scholars[1], and “Wallace Studies” has emerged as a sub-discipline.[2] Curiously, his writings inspire an obsessive fan base that resembles the enthusiasm and devotion found at sci-fi cons rather than serious literary study.[3] (Wallace had his own obsessions with television and “low-brow” pop culture, and perhaps he would find his fandom amusing.)[4]

I started reading Infinite Jest while I was living in Boston, and I was struck by the novel’s sense of place. Wallace set the novel in a dystopic future where the United States has merged with Mexico and Canada to form the Organized North American Nations. Despite this setting, Bostonians will quickly recognize places in the novel because Wallace reimagines the city in excruciating detail. Critic Bill Lattanzi suggests Wallace was mirroring James Joyce’s painstaking recreation of Dublin in Ulysses. But Lattanzi recognizes what many readers familiar with Boston understand about the novel: There is a distortion of the city in Infinite Jest. It’s not Boston, or even the United States, as we know it. [5]

In this context, I chose to evaluate the Infinite Atlas, an interactive, crowd-sourced mapping project that geo-locates references in Infinite Jest.  William Beutler, a communications consultant, created the Infinite Atlas and the travel blog Infinite Boston in 2012. The site’s “About” section describes it as “an independent research and art project.”[6]

Infinite Atlas 1 Ennet House copy
The Infinite Atlas includes fictional and fictionalized locations unique to Infinite Jest. The Ennet Drug and Alcohol Recovery House is set in the town of Ennet, a fictionalized version of Boston’s Brighton neighborhood.

The Infinite Atlas is built on Google Maps, with design work by the firm JESS3 and programming from the web development company Red Edge. (It’s unclear if Beutler paid for the design and programming.) Beutler credits his friends and family for helping him with data collection, which included going through all 1,000+ pages of Infinite Jest one-by-one. The project also allows users to create their own locations and upload photos and descriptions, so the Atlas has expanded beyond the Boston area.

What can academic institutions take away from this project? What strikes me is the dedication, love, and passion Beutler and his friends brought to it, and their continued maintenance of the Infinite Atlas. Maintenance of digital projects is an ongoing issue for academic institutions and libraries, which can’t afford trendy design firms. However, we can learn from the Infinite Atlas team’s dedication. We should choose projects that we are passionate about, ones that we will care for and attend to in the future, much in the same way we care for our physical book collections.

Infinite Atlas 2 Ryles copy
This is the Infinite Atlas entry for Ryle’s Jazz Club in Cambridge, which was the setting of a notable scene in Infinite Jest and is a place you can actually visit.

This project also has interesting implications for scholars. Infinite Jest is a very difficult book. It is long, convoluted, and full of footnotes. It requires stamina of its readers. If the novel is, as Lattanzi suggests, a fragmentation of Wallace’s experiences in Boston, it is logical that fans would try to make sense of that. Beutler told Fast Company in 2015, “I re-read Infinite Jest after Wallace’s passing, and became obsessed with the idea that there was a way to treat Infinite Jest as a very large data set.”[7] The Infinite Atlas is an attempt to better understand this novel through data, and that is one of digital humanities’ primary goals. Furthermore, the Infinite Atlas could be an object of study unto itself. It is, in a way, a primary source potentially useful for scholars interested in reader response to Wallace’s work. In the universe of digital projects, a non-academic work like the Infinite Atlas is an intriguing example because it challenges our notions of scholarship and leads us to other potentially better questions.[8]

You can find editions of David Foster Wallace’s fiction and non-fiction, including Infinite Jest, at the PCL, where you can also find critical and scholarly works on Wallace’s writing.

[1] Meredith Blake, “What’s in the David Foster Wallace Archive?” The New Yorker, March 9, 2010, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/whats-in-the-david-foster-wallace-archive

[2] See the Preface to Boswell and Burns’s 2013 book Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies for a brief history of Wallace Studies: http://catalog.lib.utexas.edu/record=b8828072~S29

[3] See fan sites like the Infinite Jest Wiki: https://infinitejest.fandom.com/wiki/David_Foster_Wallace and the Uncyclopedia: http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/David_Foster_Wallace And then there’s this particularly, er, challenging essay by Mike Miley in The Smart Set magazine from 2014: https://thesmartset.com/article08181401/

[4] See Wallace’s famous essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” in his 1997 book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again for Wallace’s examination of his own fraught relationship with television: http://catalog.lib.utexas.edu/record=b4267999~S29

[5] Bill Lattanzi, “Messing with Maps: Walking David Foster Wallace’s Boston,” Los Angeles Review of Books, February 6, 2016, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/messing-maps-walking-david-foster-wallaces-boston#!

[6] “About Infinite Atlas,” Infinite Atlas, accessed February 7, 2019. http://infiniteatlas.com/about

[7] Teressa Iezzi, “Infinite Atlas: A Location-Based Visualization Of A Literary Masterpiece,” Fast Company, January 26, 2015, https://www.fastcompany.com/1681555/infinite-atlas-a-location-based-visualization-of-a-literary-masterpiece

[8] No discussion of Infinite Jest would be complete without its own set of self-aware footnotes.

Kids and Queens: Drag Queen Story Time Comes to the PCL

Drag Queen Tatiana Cholula visits the PCL to read children’s book in order to promote positive roles models in queerness and gender fluidity. (link from Daily Texan. Photo Credit: Dakota Kern | Daily Texan Staff)

Small children running around the PCL’s UFCU Room is not a normal sight on a Tuesday morning. Neither is a drag queen dressed up in a gown and full make-up. But on November 27, the Perry-Castañeda Library brought them together for a special story time event. Tatiana Cholula read picture books to a crowd of about 20 small children and their parents. UT faculty, staff, and students joined in and took a seat on the floor to hear Miss Tatiana’s stories.

Drag Queen Story Time is a national phenomenon, and it is exactly as the name suggests – drag performers read picture books aloud to groups of small children, their parents, and adult drag fans. It has been a huge hit at public libraries across the country, and when our friends at Austin Public Library hosted their own Drag Queen Story Time event, they had to turn folks away because their room was at capacity!

While Drag Queen Story Time is not a typical event hosted by an academic library, we thought it sounded like so much fun that we had to give it a try. The PCL has an extensive Youth Collection, including a lovely selection of new and notable picture books. Faculty and students use the Youth Collection for research in education, cultural history, and art, and many faculty and staff with children check out these books for leisure reading. Because November is National Picture Book Month, it was the perfect time to hold this event.

We partnered with UT’s Gender & Sexuality Center to find a drag performer, and they directed us to Tatiana Cholula, a former UT student, who is popular in the local Austin drag scene. Miss Tatiana immediately was enthusiastic about the event, and she picked out three picture books from the PCL’s Youth Collection that featured LGBTQ+ characters and characters of color.

We are proud to have brought visibility to gender diversity and the joy and fun of drag performance to the library. The event also encouraged young children to be themselves, no matter their gender, and showed them a glamorous, queer role model. We received enthusiastic feedback from parents and students who asked us to host the event again, and Miss Tatiana said, “Showing my art to a much younger audience made my heart so full.”

 

 

iSchool students Rachel Simons and Ginny Barnes work on Wikipedia pages at the SXSW event Keep Wikipedia Queer. Barnes is also a PCL Graduate Research Assistant.
Photo by Jeanette D. Moses/WYNC

70 Pages of Change and Counting

Most people think of SXSW as a giant party. But a for a group of us from the UT Libraries this year, SXSW presented an opportunity to make Wikipedia a more welcoming and representative place for LGBTQ+-identified people.

It started with an idea from some great folks at WNYC Studios, a public radio station in New York, to host an LGBTQ+ Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon during SXSW. WNYC produces the acclaimed podcast Nancy that covers modern queer identity. Hosts Kathy Tu and Tobin Low were at the festival to present on diversity in podcasting and wanted to do more in their off-time while in Austin. They noticed that many queer and trans topics don’t have robust Wikipedia pages, if they had pages at all, so they decided to tackle these significant information gaps.

I linked up with them in January, when they had the wisdom to reach out to librarians in Austin to assist with this event, Keep Wikipedia Queer. Event planning is more than one-person job, and I was able to partner with some graduate students from iSchool Pride, a group from the School of Information.

As we began planning, we realized that many people from UT might not be in town during SXSW. To encourage as much UT participation as possible, we decided to host Queering the Record, a pre edit-a-thon research event at the PCL during the week before Spring Break. Queering the Record provided structured time, space, and snacks for librarians, students, faculty, and staff to use library resources to identify topics that need Wikipedia pages and collect a list of sources that could be used and cited by edit-a-thon participants. More than 35 people attended Queering the Record, and by the end, we created a 23-page Google doc that we were able to share and work from at Nancy’s Edit-A-Thon.

Speaking of Nancy’s event – it was a lot of fun! During the 4-hour event held downtown, we met people from around Austin and around the country, all of whom are passionate about LGBTQ+ representation. Seven folks from UT attended, including some PCL Graduate Research Assistants, and we connected with a librarian from the City University of New York system. As a group, we edited more than 70 Wikipedia pages on topics as wide-ranging as comedian/blogger Samantha Irby, LGBTQ+ rights in Syria, Austin’s QueerBomb celebration, and the children’s book series Frog and Toad.

The response to both of these events from students and staff was so positive that we hope to hold more LGBTQ+ Wikipedia edit-a-thons in the future!

 A group photo from the SXSW event Keep Wikipedia Queer, including librarians and student staff from the UT Libraries. Photo by Jeanette D. Moses/WYNC
A group photo from the SXSW event Keep Wikipedia Queer, including librarians and student staff from the UT Libraries. Photo by Jeanette D. Moses/WYNC

Special thanks to iSchool student and PCL GRA Elle Covington for her contributions to these events!

 

 

 

Read Like A Librarian: Staff Poetry Recommendations

Sarah Brandt, Librarian for First-Year Programs, shows off her selection (including the creepy illustrations), The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe from 1945.
Sarah Brandt, Librarian for First-Year Programs, shows off her selection (including the creepy illustrations), The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe from 1945.

Poetry can be intimidating – it can be vague, filled with too many metaphors, caught up in form. We’ve tried to de-mystify poetry with our latest display at the UT Poetry Center, Read Like A Librarian: Staff Poetry Recommendations. Library staff found a great range of selections, including 19th century classics by Edgar Allan Poe and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and recently published volumes by poets like Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Peter Macuck.

Here’s a selection of staff recommendations and what they had to say about these books:

Fat Girl Finishing School by Rachel Wiley
Selected by Stephanie Lopez, Weekend & Evening Desk Supervisor

“Fat Girl Finishing School pulled me in with its cheeky cover, and once I started reading I was hooked! Wiley’s words are so powerful and thought-provoking that I found myself looking around to see if anyone else felt the earth shift under them. Before long, I was chasing down everyone I saw so that they, too, could read the words that caused such a visceral reaction in me. Do yourself and favor and read this. Your heart will thank you.”

Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Selected by Sarah Morris, Learning & Assessment Librarian

“Barrett Browning is best known for two things: Marrying Robert Browning and writing Sonnets from the Portuguese. But she’s also the author of Aurora Leigh, a feminist epic that explores issues of class, gender, art, and the challenges women face in finding opportunities for work, and respect for their work, in a restrictive society. Groundbreaking at the time, it’s still a great read today.”

Come visit the UT Poetry Center in PCL 2.500 to see more staff picks and read the books in person!