Kent Maps Online: Lose Yourself for Free…

Kent Maps Online: Lose Yourself for Free…

Carolyn Oulton approached the JSTOR Labs team a few years ago, drawn to us when she saw how project Livingstone’s Zambezi Project showed a variety of primary sources visualized using both geography and time.  Carolyn was interested in creating a new interdisciplinary site helping people researching the county of Kent in the southeast of England, one that would allow users, for example, to trace the footsteps of both Dickens and his characters in the region.  Loving her enthusiasm and willingness to dive into uncharted waters, we agreed to work together.

This project touches upon a theme that JSTOR Labs keeps returning to: how can we better connect and present diverse but related content?  In projects starting with the Zambezi project and including Cultural History Baseball Cards and the Interview Archive, we’ve explored different ways both to make the connections and to present them to the end user.  Most recently, we’ve been continuing this work with the Plant Humanities Initiative (I can’t WAIT to show you what we’re cooking up for that project).  We’ve learned something new with each project, iterating slowly towards our goal of creating something both useful and replicable.

Working with Carolyn has given us an opportunity to work, not with a set of already-collected materials, but with researchers currently gathering the physical and digital primary sources, and to help them use Linked Open Data, maps and other tools to organize them. On this project, the iterative, exploratory process that is the nature of academic research has been mirrored by our own collective effort to find ways to present and organize this material for others.  This process is ongoing: the site linked to below is very much a work in progress, representing the resources and connections the team at Canterbury Christ Church University have compiled to date, with more collection and more organization still to come.

I’ll leave it to Carolyn to introduce the project in more depth.  As you read, don’t let her self-deprecating wit fool you: she’s an intrepid explorer of both the county Kent and digital landscapes.  Having explored, now she gets to share her adventures with us.  Enjoy Kent Maps Online.

- Alex Humphreys

The standard model for a Humanities research project looks something like this:

- Come up with an abstruse topic, the importance of which is clearly apparent.
- Devise a difficult question to which you alone already know the answer.
- Read widely (without losing focus) and establish appropriate parameters (any vaguely related source from the century either side of your own).
- Write in an appropriate scholarly register (this will help no end with impact later on).
- Acknowledge your lasting debt to other critics and hope like mad you don’t meet them at a conference only to forget which book they wrote (or what it was about).[1]

But if the past is a foreign country (thank you L. P. Hartley), it is also a country we pass through every day. For every blue plaque reminding us where the famous – sometimes the infamous - have been before us, there is a museum curator carefully preserving flint tools or pottery fragments and inviting us to imagine the unknown people who used them. And we in turn move through this landscape, leaving material traces behind us. From student nurses in Victorian terraced houses to ice cream vendors outside Norman castles, we all become part of the palimpsest. The constantly evolving field of Digital Humanities gives us new ways to try and capture something of that experience in ways that the traditional monograph was never designed to do.

Kent Maps Online was born of a fascination with untold stories and forgotten things. Yes it features canonical authors, quite a few of them in fact. But it also makes space for the obscure and out of print, the overtly populist and the downright odd. In the process it quite deliberately breaks down the boundaries between Kent’s historic and fictional characters, to gain the widest possible sense of how place has been explored, reimagined, fought over and fought for in the course of many centuries by the people who live here.

This is a new kind of virtual space, where a user can join Elizabeth von Arnim on a visit to H. G. Wells - if the conversation dries up, they can always escape to the Folkestone Free Library to learn more about Dickens’s time in the town. The man himself is long gone, but there are still some lovely walks (including along the Leas, where his lifelong admirer Jerome K. Jerome memorably came unstuck, probably during a holiday in the early 1890s). But enough about Folkestone - as Gladys Waterer would doubtless point out, it’s not easy to find a place in Kent that Dickens didn’t include in his books. To name the earliest possible example, The Pickwick Papers gets all over the place.

If Victorian-born authors seem unable to leave Kent alone, they are not the only ones. Wherever you look this coastal county, with its mysterious underground rivers and historic canals, is telling the story of its own past, from the founding of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury in 598 to the air raids that gained Dover the unenviable nickname ‘Hell Fire Corner’ during WW2. The challenge is knowing where to start.

How we got started

Planned, as we are never tired of admitting, on the back of an envelope, the project had one simple aim: to ask questions about history, literature and place – if only we were sure what questions we wanted to ask. One of the most innovative features of is its emphasis on the exploratory and undiscovered - researchers ourselves, we are continually adding to the site, but we never wanted to have the last word on how it should be used. We realised from the start that no fact was too obscure, no writer ‘just passing through’ too insignificant for inclusion. That throwaway comment in a letter might turn out to be vital in another context, and as for the innocently brief morning call - well...

Nonetheless in the early stages the task seemed both overwhelming and strangely fragmented. Trying to establish when 2 Nuckell’s Place changed its name to Dickens House was clearly a worthwhile activity, but there was hardly an article in it. And was anyone really going to thank us for pointing out that American humourist Robert Barr was mates with the editor of a long forgotten weekly in Folkestone? Then there was the vexed question of who on earth was going to wade through all those issues of the Kentish Gazette.

Our exploratory conversations with JSTOR Labs largely consisted of variations on the same theme:

‘Sounds interesting. So how do you imagine this taking shape?’

‘No idea. You?’

Which is one way to approach a potential research partner. Unbelievably it worked for us.

Designing the map

The turning point came when we realised that we didn’t want this to be just a showcase for a body of research – what we were building, archive by archive and link by link, was a creative research tool, one that could be used by anyone at any stage of their career. Equipped with full scholarly apparatus (trust us on this, we have a librarian on board), the essays would be written in accessible language and would also be shorter than a traditional journal article. No one was going to feel that the site ‘wasn’t talking to them’ and visitors would be able to make their own connections as they navigated between whichever topics interested them most.

But if we were truly to meet the needs of users we had to think about who those users were. JSTOR Labs asked us to write mini-stories about characters who might stumble across the site. We dreamed up a harried author of historic fiction whose publisher suddenly wanted a bit more detail on 18th century shipping. Then there was the sixth form student with an essay on local communities due in yesterday. Someone needed to check a few facts for a talk they were giving in the library. Date of Thomas Arden’s murder? No problem.

Imagining real people accessing the site really helped us to think about how it would be used and what it could do. One of the joys of living in Kent is the way it piles up its own history and literature (sometimes literally, as the discovery of a Roman bath house under Canterbury Waterstones reminds us). But no one undertakes research by working out everything for themselves – literary critics check in with historians to assess the bias of Victorian authors; librarians unravel the mysteries of dewey to reveal it as an ideological tool, not just a convenient way of arranging books.

Going interdisciplinary, changing the question

As more researchers came on board we realised how many unexpected connections there were between our very different interests. And we also started thinking more closely about what our disciplines could offer each other. David Copperfield may walk all the way from London to Dover, but how would that feel on an early 19th century road? How might young men from Folkestone respond to being handed a white feather in public – could we successfully use drama and creative writing to reimagine the town’s WW1 past?

As we talked to each other and to our students, it became obvious that this would be a ‘living’ project with a very real tendency to keep growing. And so we called in expertise wherever we found it: from the Centre for Kent History and Heritage and the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers at CCCU as well as universities further afield. But also from libraries and museums, bookshops, local history societies and schools.

Working with us

The Kent Maps project is designed for use by experts, students and anyone looking for a book to read on one of our beautiful beaches. We have volunteers researching hidden archives, proofing and editing, working on the digital layout, and just reminding us to wish Dickens happy birthday on twitter. For the actual map reading abilities of some of us, we refer you to

Not what you were expecting? Where do you think we got our tagline:

Find your own answers to questions you haven’t thought of yet…

[1] Only genuine lovers of the monograph are allowed to satirise it like this. But let’s face it, no one’s going to cite this post if there isn’t at least one footnote.