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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.

The Libraries and García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez working on “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Credit: Guillermo Angulo/Harry Ransom Center

As the university wraps up this year’s Fleur Cowles Symposium “Gabriel García Márquez: His Life and Legacy,” it’s worth noting the Libraries (specifically the Benson Latin American Collection and LLILAS Benson) involvement in support of the noted Colombian author’s archive at the Harry Ransom Center.

The Benson’s Mexican materials bibliographer Jose Montelongo accompanied Ransom Center director Stephen Ennis on a trip to Mexico City, where García Márquez spent his final years, to review the archive materials, and upon the announcement of the acquisition, Montelongo responded to media inquiries providing perspectives on the importance of the archive to the university and researchers, and on the author’s station in the literary canon.

As the premiere Latin American special collection in the western hemisphere, the Benson will provide the complementary resources and support for researchers who come to Austin to utilize the García Márquez archive, further strengthening the partnership between the two institutions.

An article by the Austin-American Statesman on the recent opening of the archive drives home the importance of the relationship between the Ransom Center and the Benson.

Listen to a Public Radio International interview with Jose Montelongo on the acquisition of the archive of Gabriel García Márquez:

 

You Are Everywhere – The PCL Map Collection

PCL Map Collection

“Who does not have etched in the mind images of countries and of the world based on maps?”

– John Noble Wilford, The Mapmakers

It’s certainly the case that our perception of the world’s geography is rooted in our experience with the maps we’ve encountered, developed and designed over eons by both hand and machine. Even though we may have become increasingly reliant on disembodied voices to lead us where we need to go, the archetype for understanding the concept of location which we carry in our minds was instilled by the road guides of family vacations, massive retractable world maps of the elementary classroom and spinning globes of our past.

Equal parts art and science, maps are one of the most effective methods for conveying information visually in virtually any field of inquiry. In the miniaturization of space that is necessary to explain vast areas on a personal scale is a documentation of history and of change; of character and personality, value and values; of plant and animal; of health and illness, feast and famine; of motion and stasis; and of nearly any aspect of life and place that can be categorized for better understanding the world in which we live.

PCL Map Collection manager Katherine Strickland assists a patron
PCL Map Collection manager Katherine Strickland assists a patron.

And that, perhaps, is what makes the map collection at the Perry-Castañeda Library so incredibly valuable. Its scope in both size and subject is immense enough to maintain an intrinsic value — both as historical artifact and as a tool of modern research and reference — that goes unaffected by the passage of time.

Though the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection is considered a general collection, it’s anything but. Residing on the first floor of the university’s flagship library, it features more than 250,000 cartographic items representing all areas of the world. And its online component is not only one of the most highly visited websites at the university — garnering nearly 8 million visits annually — but is in the top ten most popular results for a Google search of “maps.”

The university began informally collecting maps previously — at the General Libraries, but also through efforts at the Geology Library, the Barker Texas History Center and the Benson Latin American Collection — but it wasn’t until the PCL opened in 1977 that the Map Collection was established on the first floor of the building as an independent collection.

The core of the collection emerged with the acquisition of the U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps, which date from the late 19th century and cover the entire United States, U.S. territories and other parts of the world where governments contracted U.S.G.S. for mapping, such as Saudi Arabia.

Topographic map of Singapore Island, 1941.
Topographic map of Singapore Island, 1941.

Since then, the collection has grown to feature military maps from various conflicts around the world, government nautical and aeronautical charts, topographic collections, city maps representing over 5,000 cities around the world, aerospace navigation charts, data and demographic maps, and just about every other conceivable type of physical cartography.

The collection also houses an extensive collection of atlases, from a street atlas of El Paso to the National Atlas of India. The library also purchases commercial and foreign government-issued topographic map series, country, city and thematic maps. The collection also includes a small but popular collection of plastic raised-relief maps and globes, not only of earth, but of the Moon, planets and other various celestial bodies.

Most of the maps in the collection date from 1900 to the present, and the collection is constantly being updated with newer materials, and complements a number of significant historical map collections housed on campus in the Center for American History (historical maps of Texas), the Benson Latin American Collection, the Harry Ransom Center and the Walter Geology Library.

Paul Rascoe — the Libraries’ Documents, Maps, & Electronic Info Services Librarian — has been the driving force behind the collection at PCL, especially in the formulation and execution of the collection’s online component. And it hasn’t hurt to have the planets align, at times.

“In 1994, we decided that we were going to scan maps,” says Rascoe. “We had a Macintosh computer and a Mac scanner, which I believe cost $100. We had a plan to put them in sort of a web menuing system called Gopher, but fortunately, simultaneously with our wanting to put maps online, the first web browser was introduced in that year.” Continue reading

Ransom Center Nabs Laureate

J. M. Coetzee signs the authors' door of the Ransom Center during a visit in May 2010. Photo by Pete Smith. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.

One has to wonder how they do it.

The Harry Ransom Center has just announced a major addition to their stellar collection of contemporary writers, and yet another Nobel laureate, no less.

The archive of UT alumnus J.M. Coetzee is now part of the Ransom Center’s vast holdings of original manuscripts and source materials from major modern works of literature. The archive includes materials from all of Coetzee’s works, including his two Man Booker award-winning novels, Life & Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999).

The South African Coetzee has a fifty-year history with the university, earning his Ph.D. in English, linguistics and Germanic languages in 1969. He’s kept close ties with UT, teaching at the Michener Center for Writers in 1995, and most recently, visiting campus last year to give a lecture as part of the Graduate School’s 1910 Society Lecture Series, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the school.

Be a Fellow

The Woodward and Bernstein Watergate archive at the Harry Ransom Center.

Calling all scholars! The Harry Ransom Center has opened their annual Fellowship application period for 2012-13.

Who wouldn’t want to get their paws dirty digging through the personal papers of such luminary writers as Graham Greene, Anne Sexton, Norman Mailer and David Foster Wallace? Or wile away the time wading through ephemera from Gone With The Wind, Spellbound, The Third Man or any number of other David O. Selznick productions? Or just bask in contemplative imagery from the massive Gernsheim photography archive? With more than 50 fellowships available annually, there’s no reason not to apply.

And the Libraries’ 9 million+ volumes and vast digital resources and special collections are here to support your work…as if you needed more motivation to follow the link below.

More information.

Tennessee at College

 

Playbill for The Garden Players production of "Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay" by Bernice Dorothy Shapiro and Tom Williams, July 12, 1935. Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center.

For once, we’re pretty happy that a lack of space has become an issue on campus.

Thanks in no small part to the ridiculously extensive Tennessee Williams holdings at the Harry Ransom Center, the Fine Arts Library has gotten the chance to host an overflow exhibit of materials related to the HRC’s massive homage to the Southern Gothic playwright, “Becoming Tennessee Williams.”

The companion exhibit at FAL, “Tennessee Williams, the College Years” features a limited number of items from Williams’s time in the academy – both at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and at the University of Iowa – including photos, correspondence, manuscripts and more.

The exhibition opens today and runs through July 31 in the Roberts Reading Room at FAL, where it can be viewed Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and weekends from noon to 5 p.m.

 

Mexican History in 365 days

1910In case you weren’t aware, 2010 marks two major anniversaries in the history of Mexico – the bicentennial of Mexican Independence and the centennial of the Revolution – and in recognition of those milestones, a number of events will be taking place around the university and in the Austin community. The Libraries are particularly attuned to the celebrations due to our oversight of the preeminent Benson Latin American Collection, so we’ll be keeping tabs on the goings-on about town. We’ll also be part of the celebration with the launch of the Benson’s exhibition – Frente a Frente: The Mexican People in Independence and Revolution, 1810–1910 – early this summer.

You can find a fairly comprehensive list of the university offerings at the College of Liberal Arts Mexico 2010 site, and a Mexico 2010 Austin Organizing Committee headed by Chair Teresa Lozano Long and Co-Chairs Dr. Victoria Rodriguez & Dr. Hector Morales is coordinating the Austin community events. The Ransom Center’s exhibition “¡Viva! Mexico’s Independence” is already open to visitors, so make time for a visit. And this Thursday (March 25), a pair of events worth noting are taking place in town – Mexican writer Héctor Aguilar Camín will talk about the history of Mexican politics and journalist/novelist Ángeles Mastretta will participate in a Q&A after a screening of the movie based on her 1985 novel Arráncame la vida. Find out more about these events from our friends at ShelfLife@Texas.

Feliz Aniversario, México!

A-B-C. Well, except in this case…

Mamet_Portrait_300dpi
David Mamet on set of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1981), 1980. David Mamet papers. Unknown photographer. Harry Ransom Center.

Our friends at the Harry Ransom Center just announced the opening of the David Mamet papers for scholarly research.

The archive covers his entire career, so it includes the source materials for all of his major plays (Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, Oleanna), as well as his screenwriting work (The Postman Always Rings Twice – the 1981 adaptation, The Untouchables, The Spanish Prisoner).

Find out more at Cultural Compass.



Ransom Center opens “Making Movies”

Making_Movies_Taxi_Driver_300dpiThere’s always something going on around the UT campus, but there are certain organizations to whose calendar I tend to pay particular heed.

Our friends at the Harry Ransom Center are opening their newest exhibition today, and it promises to get a rave from the critics.

Making Movies” will draw on the significant film holdings of the Ransom Center to examine the creative process in filmmaking. Continue reading