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Social Science History 24.3 (2000) 505-536
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Using GIS for Spatial and Temporal Analyses in Print Culture Studies:
Some Opportunities and Challenges
Bertrum H. MacDonald and Fiona A. Black
In the five centuries since Gutenberg introduced printing with movable type, Western society has been thoroughly infused by print culture. This culture, a complex mosaic of numerous factors, has recently become the focus of extensive historical research. The history of print culture, frequently referred to as the “history of the book,” concerns those aspects of a society that relate to the production, distribution, and reception of printed materials, whether canonical works of literature or ephemeral items such as newspapers and handbills. [End Page 505] Authorship, publishing, regulation, bookselling, libraries, and reading are some of the aspects examined.1 Because print culture permeates all of society, the study of its history has captured the interest of a wide range of researchers: an array of historians of various types and periods (e.g., social, labor, cultural, and legal historians; historians of religion and ideas; and historians of science and technology), literary scholars (of various periods and genres), sociologists, information scientists and librarians, geographers, and bibliographers, among others. As might be expected, scholars of this diversity bring a wide breadth of perspectives to the subject. Collectively, these perspectives are needed in the face of the wealth of data that can be used to explain the complexity of print culture. Numerous aspects, such as the reading experiences of an individual, are qualitative in nature and cannot be “counted” easily. Still, many other aspects can be quantified and positioned in space and time, including, for example, where and when an author’s works were first printed, the time from the date of publication of a work to its arrival in particular locations, the political viewpoints of newspaper editors in different regions, literacy rates, and urban concentrations of the printing and allied trades.
While historians of print culture have made significant use of quantitative data, investigations of multiple variables have not been achieved easily, if at all. Geographic information systems (GIS) technology has arrived in historical circles at a time when a means of analyzing quantitative aspects of print culture through time and space is needed. In this article we address the types of opportunities involved in harnessing GIS technology at both micro- and macrolevels, and we look at some of the challenges involved in using existing print culture databases in addition to developing other relevant datasets.
Our interest in GIS stems in part from the current vibrant state of research in this interdisciplinary field. A manifestation of the recent surge of scholarship is the series of forthcoming multivolume national “histories of the book” (see Gross 1997). When completed, A History of the Book in America, for example, will consist of five volumes.2 Similar projects are under way in Canada, Scotland, Ireland, England, Australia, New Zealand, and numerous other countries.3 In 1991 an international association, the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP), was founded, and it has hosted seven successful annual conferences. The society has an active electronic conference (SHARP-L) and a highly informative Web site, [End Page 506] SHARP Web, and in 1998 the society launched an award-winning new journal entitled Book History.4
Although these developments demonstrate substantial recent research, the history of the book is not a new field of study. There have been historians of this genre almost since the time of the first written records; studies have not been confined to the period of printed books, although the interest of many scholars does lie in the post-Gutenberg period. Nonetheless, in the last two decades increasing interest has been focused on this field, and within the 1990s the topic became “hot” (Grafton 1997: 139). Bibliographies of the field show that earlier studies tended to be narrow in scope and often parochial; more recently, an increasing number of inquiries that probe broader issues and cross national boundaries have appeared, possibly indicating a...