Visualising Australian Book History

For the last few years, I’ve been involved in a variety of research projects, some that have sent me into archives to examine the records of authors and publishers, and others that have inspired me to experiment with bibliographical data drawn from AustLit. I’ve learned a lot from IT colleagues, particularly Anna Gerber, and I’ve been inspired and encouraged by many of the participants who attended THATCamp Canberra, and THATCamp Brisbane. My field of research crosses over book history, scholarly editing, and transnational literary studies, but I’m an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to data visualisation. And so, I flit around between distant reading of small collections of bibliographical data, and close reading of archival records that will probably never be digitised.

Most of my research productivity comes out in journal articles and scholarly editions, but the visual guides that I use for quiet contemplation or guidance when thinking about how to characterise relationships between authors and publishers, or publishers and publishers don’t get much further than my MacBook Air or a slide in an occasional conference presentation … until now.

Few of my colleagues pursue research that looks at Australian book history from a distance to capture the nuances of publishing trends and relationships or spatial distributions. The obvious exceptions are Katherine Bode and Jason Ensor, both of whom have done remarkable work with AustLit data. Kath’s Reading by Numbers: Recalibrating the Literary Field revised Australian literary history by looking at publishing trends rather than the trajectory of a few canonical texts, and Jason has done similar work with articles like ‘Is a Picture Worth 10,175 Novels‘ and ‘Still Waters Run Deep: Empirical Methods and the Migration Patterns of Regional Publishers’ Authors and Titles within Australian Literature‘. Research methods such as these have shown the promise of employing AustLit’s bibliographical data, but we have seen little uptake by PhD students and other scholars.

For my own part, I’ve embraced the spreadsheet and have used data collected in various projects to experiment with network visualisation and mapping, primarily with thoughts of employing such techniques as a scholarly editor and book historian to better understand the contexts in which literary works are found. For some time, I’ve been working with David Carter to explore the trajectories of Australian novels as they made their way to publishing houses in the United States of America. Drawing on AustLit’s bibliographical data, we produced and enhanced a spreadsheet that provided an efficient way for us to graph publishing trends for the 150-year history of American editions of Australian novels. The spreadsheet also provided the data to look at relationships between Australian authors and American publishers on a large scale. Using Gephi, I experimented with authors and publishers as source and target until my eyes went bleary. While some of the major publishers and authors were no surprise, representation of the field in this way serves as a reminder of the complexity of the publishing world, but also suggests possible meanings in proximity that we are still working through as we write a narrative for publication.

American Publishers

Network of Relationships Between Australian Authors and American Publishers, 1840-2012.

 

Detail of Australian Authors and American Publishers, 1840-2012.

Detail of Australian Authors and American Publishers, 1840-2012.

More recently, I’ve been compiling a bibliography of criticism of select Australian authors for a colleague who aims to look at the way these authors have been positioned in ‘world’ literature. For most of these authors, the numbers of their international reception equals or exceeds their reception within Australian borders, indicating the transnational nature of Australian literary production and reception.

Tabulating Criticism of an Australian Author by Country and Year of Criticism.

Tabulating Criticism of an Australian Author by Country and Year of Criticism.

AustLit’s recent restructure has made it easier to export search results into a variety of formats. After exporting from AustLit and importing into Zotero for enhancement and management, I exported again in RIS format and sent that through JabRef to create a csv file which I then used to create tables (like the one above) and graphs and networks. My colleague has a lot more reading and thinking to do in order to position and interpret individual works of criticism, but looking (below) at this network of a selection of seven novelists and their many critics, the potential for network analysis on a much larger scale is evident. If only there was world enough, and time, and . . .

Critics and Works Network

Visualisation of Relationships Between Seven Australian Authors and Their Critics.

I look forward to getting back to the archive to leaf through manuscripts and business records created by human beings for human beings, but I am also attracted to the promise of visualisations such as those above to guide and shape my thinking about the activities of those humans whose biographies emerge from archival research. I don’t see these as definitive representations of the way things are, particularly since I made them, but they are artefacts of my attempts to understand Australian book history and print culture on a national and an international scale. I have much more to learn about the best way to visualise the data and follow that up with legitimate interpretation. (Please contact me with advice and encouragement!)  But, as my spreadsheets evolve and grow so will the tables and visualisations that are produced from that data. I’d like to think that I am modelling contingent data in support of contingent knowledge production, but I might sleep on that and see what I think in the morning.

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One Response to Visualising Australian Book History

  1. Marie-Louise Ayres says:

    Roger, do you know how satisfying it is to see this kind of research emerging from AustLit, 15 years after we (the first development team) dreamed up hundreds of crazy questions we thought AustLit should be able to answer – not necessarily through a web interface, but through exploitation of all those entity relationships? Great post – thanks! Marie-Louise Ayres

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