Telling new stories with old maps

This talk was given at the National Library on May 26 as part of the series on cartography being jointly presented by the National Library of New Zealand and Victoria University of Wellington.

Dr Sydney Shep is Reader in Book History at Victoria University of Wellington and The Printer, Wai-te-ata Press.

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A strange circular view of a building, evocative of a compass.

I’d like to start with a map, an old map, in fact, an old map upcycled into something rich and strange.

Dress patterned with a medieval map, highlighting a fleet of ships and a alligator-ish creature.Elisabeth Lecourt, “Le Poisson d’Argent Volant”, Voyage of Sir Francis Drake, Santo Domingo map, rep. 1585.

“Le poisson d’argent volant” [the flying silverfish] is one in a series of creative works entitled Les robes geographiques by the London-based multimedia artist Elisabeth Lecourt. Maps, some dating back to the 14th century, are cut and folded, nipped and tucked, to fashion what Lecourt terms “a portrait of people through their clothes, like a blue-print of their soul.” With pointed insight and alluring cultural displacement, Lecourt pushes the boundaries between mapping and clothing in order to enable us to view afresh our relationship to space and time, as well as identity politics and aesthetics. But Lecourt also implicitly interrogates the classic locution:

Location icon with the caption 'you are here', and the back of an iphone with a location icon and the caption 'I am here'.

You are here (singular you, plural us); You are here (an active, declarative presence in the present); You are here (this spot).

Dress patterned with a modern road and landscape map.Elisabeth Lecourt, “La Chasse aux Papillons”, map of Cambridge, 2011.

By the way, note that these dresses are disembodied – something we’ll return to at the end.

Map for today

  • Orienting our vision
  • Spatial turn in history
  • Exploring world of digital humanities and digital history
  • Showcase projects
  • Old stories new maps

Diagram mapping connections between members of the processing flickr group. It's quite pretty, though hard to read.Andreas Köberle, "everyone knows everyone from flickr".

Today I’d like us to explore the relationship between mapping and storytelling, specifically digital mapping and digital storytelling. We’ll examine what is a map, investigate how digital humanists and digital historians engage with the mapmaking enterprise, and finally, sneak a peek at how data artists and creative technologists are reinventing the map experience.

So, to some definitions. I like to think of maps in three broad categories. The first is cartography: the systematic representation of space underpinned by a set of codified principles of information display and recognized conventions of viewing. Many of the items in the Unfolding the Map exhibition fall into this category.

Possibly also this one:

Partial map of central London, showing the 8th most common name in areas. North of the Thames there are a lot of Rahmans, Uddins, Hussains, and Ahmeds. South of the Thames are lots of Thompsons, Martins, Browns, Joneses, and Clarks.

A cultural geography of London grounded by a familiar topographic depiction of the Thames, winding through the 15 most common names of that historic crucible of mobility, London, with colour keyed to ethnic origin, and size commensurate with population density.

The second is navigation systems: ways of making sense of the world by negotiating visual, verbal, and sonic cues through a man-made, machine-enabled grid.

An Incan royal tunic, heavily patterned, substantially shades of orange and red.

Here’s an Incan royal tunic, a T' oqapu, composed of 150 woven geometric patterned squares, each representing a story of the various people, places, and social relations of the tribe, and enabling readers to navigate their world of power, territoriality, and politics.

The third category is metaphor: ways of bridging the unknown world through often poetic acts of comparison, if not colonization, in order to render the strange familiar, the unknown domestic. I’m sure you’re all familiar with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the novel published in 1813 that is, not the tv adaptation, the many films, or even the book of the film of the book.

What if we were to view the whole novel in a single screenshot? It might look like this,

Diagram of all the punctuation marks in Austen's Pride and Prejudice, displayed sequentially in a spiral.

a map that visualizes all the novel’s punctuation marks chapter by chapter, and presents a different window on this writer’s unique DNA.

Or like this,

Heatmap representation of the punctuation in Pride and Prejudice. Periods and question marks and exclamation marks are red. Commas and quotation marks are green. Semicolons and colons are blue. The overall picture is a calmly varied purple.

a heat map where "Periods and question marks and exclamation marks are red. Commas and quotation marks are green. Semicolons and colons are blue."

It could also look like this,

Bar based visualisation of the punctuation in several novels, by punctuation mark. Most have a lot of commas, aside from Blood Meridian.

a more familiar (but can we say deadly dull) rendering that adds a fascinating comparative dimension nonetheless. In foregrounding punctuation, creator Adam Calhoun, suggests that, "Writing can be beautiful because of the words an author chooses to use: but it can also be beautiful because of the choice of punctuation."

Another way of conceptualizing the differences between these definitions of maps is to look at the distinction between space, place, location and site. While we might use them interchangeably, there are important differences between them.

Different maps and images of the National Library, illustrating distinctions between, space, place, location, and site.

Location is the specific area defined by geo-coordinates (NLNZ is at the corner of Molesworth and Aitken Streets – you can see the decimal geocoordinates in the top image); Site: specific location (this building, even this room); Space: measurable, physical form (length, width, depth – volumetric dimensions of this building, room); Place: socially constructed and local, infused with human meaning, past present and future.

Covers of Alastair Bonnett's Off the map, and Yi-Fu Tuan's Topophilia.

The relationship between space and place is particularly intriguing.

Alistair Bonnett’s recent book, Off The Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places, and What They Us About the World (2014) opens with a haunting reminder of the importance of place and its dislocation in the clinical world of Google Earth.

He notes,

you don’t have to walk far into our coagulated landscape to realise that, over the past hundred years or so and across the world, we have become much better at destroying places than building them... the replacement of unique and distinct places by generic blandscapes is severing us from something important.

He points to the modernist frisson associated with ‘space’:

it evokes mobility and absence of restrictions; it promises empty landscapes filled with promise. When confronted with the filled-in busyness and oddity of place the reaction of modern societies has been to straighten and rationalise, to prioritise connections and erase obstacles, to overcome place with space.

Bonnett quotes philosophy professor Edward Casey, who observes that "'the encroachment of an indifferent sameness-of-place on a global scale' is eating away at our sense of self." And he refers to Chinese American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan who coined the term 'topophilia' the love of place, a fundamental part of what it is to be human (Bonnett, 2-3).

A key point to remember, however, is that whatever the descriptive category, analytical framework or emotional resonance, "all maps lie."

The challenge

How can geospatial technology capture a sense of 'place' when it is generated through "activities, emotional linkages, social bonds, and other... behaviours that are harder to represent in stasis or concretely?"

Rumsey, 2009, p6

In 1991, American cartographer Mark Monmonier wrote the now iconic book on how to read maps. He deploys a fascinating lexicon that exposes what he calls the 'cartographic paradox.' Evoking the cartographic priesthood, cartographic mischief, cartographic license, cartographic mystique, and cartographic seduction, he asks: Where do truth claims about maps reside? Can we take them at face value? Can we put a face to/in a place? How do those truth claims reconfigure how our bodies move through the landscape?

Let’s take the example of our reliance upon the ubiquitous TomTom, GPS trackers, and cellphone navigation systems, with or without the rounded tones of "Jane" or the hiphop jive beat of "rasta-man." On average, at least once a year, drivers end up in ditches, lakes, at or over cliffs, and well into other countries.

It's a car, in the water, with a big boat in the background. The boat is supposed to be in the water. The car is not.

In 2012, three students from Toyko found themselves in Moreton Bayin Moreton Bay, that is – on their way to North Stradbroke Island off the coast of Australia. "The road looked clear, at low tide - but the map forgot to show the 9 miles of water and mud between the island and the mainland. It told us we could drive down there," said Yuzu Noda, 21. "It kept saying it would navigate us to a road. We got stuck... there's lots of mud."

Stories like these might suggest a naïve acceptance of the logic if not reality of geo-coordinates. But is it any different from iPhone6’s 5.5in screen display size of a Google map that directs us to a new restaurant, a blind date, or a dead end? A very small part of a whole we can’t or won’t see unless we deploy a zoom out function; a window to a truncated world.

What does it mean, therefore, to plot contemporary marae on a Google Earth basemap?

The Māori Maps interface, showing New Zealand with icons for each mapped marae.

Yes it is a way of bridging cultures, 'your guide to our home' but it is also a kind of reverse colonization, reclaiming by and for Maori in digital space, the nineteenth-century European overwriting of their landscape, their place.

The Māori Maps interface closer up, showing details for Hongoeka, in Porirua.

In a celebrated essay from 1978, "The Historical Text as Literary Artifact," historian Hayden White explored the synergies between fact, fiction, and representation.

Readers of histories and novels can hardly fail to be struck by their similarities... Viewed simply as verbal artifacts histories and novels are indistinguishable from one another. We cannot easily distinguish between them on formal grounds unless we approach them with specific preconceptions about the kinds of truths that each is supposed to deal in.

If we include maps as part of the narrative strategies in the historian’s imaginative toolkit, then we can perhaps understand how they are extremely useful tools for thinking about the relationship between space and time, for testing social and cultural assumptions, and for exposing the constructions of history.

That we often evoke the term 'mapping' to describe a process of knowledge creation and recalibration suggests the ubiquity of the metaphorical dimension in our everyday lives. Like 'metaphor,' 'place' also points to situated contexts of knowledge making and breaking. Here’s four reflections on that theme.

< place-based thinking >

The idea of place encompasses both the idea of the social activities and institutions that are expressed in and through the structure of a particular place (and which can be seen as partially determinative of that place) and the idea of the physical objects and events in the world (along with the associated causal process) that constrain, and are sometimes constrained by, those social activities and institutions... It is within the structure of place that the very possibility of the social arises.

- J E Malpas, Place and experience: A philosophical topography, Cambridge, CUP, 1999, p 35-6.

< meeting-up places >

Place are constructed at a particular constellation of social relations meeting and veering together at a particular locus.

- Dorren Massey, Space, place and gender, Cambridge, CUP, 1994, p 28.

< place-naming >

Through the act and process of place-naming, space is transformed symbolically into a place, that is, a space with history.

- Paul Carter, The road to Botany Bay: An essay in spatial history, London, Faber and Faber, 1987.

< place-making >

The past cannot exist in time; only in space.

All human action takes and makes place. The past is a set of places made by human action. History is a map of those places.

- Philip J Ethington, "Placing the past: 'Groundwork' for a spatial theory of history," Rethinking history, 11:4 (December 2007), p 465-93.

Place-based thinking, meeting-up places, place-naming, and place-making all reflect the notion that "place is a protean and fundamental aspect of what it is to be human. We are a place-making and place-loving species" (Bonnett, 3).

The process by which we negotiate metaphor and understand place is through 'storytelling' through history or herstory. I often wonder what Hayden White would have thought of the new modes of visual storytelling purveyed by digital humanists and digital historians.

Computer visualisations

may at once embody deep and complex specialist knowledge and at the same time make the contours of that knowledge intuitively accessible to a non-expert audience in a way that a text-based publication never could.

"The London charter" in Paradata and transparency in virtual heritage, Ashgate, 2012.

Some might call these new modes of engagement data visualization, infographics, or cultural analytics, but to me, they represent the richness of how we redefine maps and reinvent the mapmakers’ compass rose.

But first, a segue into the world of digital humanities.

Word map of digital humanities related terms, including digital, humanities, knowledge, data, cultural, work, and so many more.

You might have heard the term bandied around before and certainly the field has a very visible presence overseas. It encompasses anything from corpus linguistics to webmapping, data analytics to crowdsourcing, historical GIS to digital media arts. Increasingly, practitioners and academics are identifying with a specific aspect, such as digital history, while retaining some of the domain’s core foundational principles: team-driven projects, prototyping research, open access, open source, open linked data, and alternative academic outputs and dissemination strategies.

I often like to describe two projects when explaining digital humanities.

What is digital humanities?

-> The application of computing technology and techniques

---> to build greater understanding of our diverse social culture and cultural archives

-----> employing and designing tools, formats, and approaches

-------> to support new methods and findings

Page of The Humument, showing a few words highlighted to generate a new narrative; Students passing novel texts through machine reading.

Firstly, let’s take a look at the image on the left. The British artist Tom Phillips’ work of 'idle play' entitled The Humument dates from 1966. Phillips set himself a challenge: find a used book costing only threepence and by highlighting, connecting, and erasing the typographical substrate, generate new texts and new meanings

On a routine Saturday morning shopping expedition he found a copy of A Human Document by W.H. Mallock, published in 1892. Mallock’s 'novel' is a collection of letters, poems, manuscripts, scrapbooks, and other documents purportedly belonging to 'real people.' It traces the lives of two characters: a woman and an unidentified other whose life unravels and turns inside out through the course of the book.

However, the anonymous narrator observes that these materials "as they stand, are not a story in any literary sense; though they enable us, or rather force us, to construct one out of them for ourselves." Like hypertext fiction, Phillip’s 'altered,' or as he terms it, 'threaded' books construct new stories, at last count, over 1,000. This analogue work is not much different from electronic data mining and the range of visualisations he has produced from its pages are startling in their network prescience.

The second anecdote is alluded to on the right of this side. Stanford University’s Literature Lab runs a course in which students 'read' 1,200 novels not, cover-to-cover, but intermediated through machine-readable tools. By data mining an entire digital library, they seek to answer those perennially vexatious macrohistorical questions about the evolution of language, ideas, and culture, and have, perhaps for the first time, the weight of evidence to prove them. What might have taken a scholar a lifetime to assemble and analyse, can now, take virtually a nano-second.

Franco Moretti, distant reading

Map of character interactions in Hamlet.

...the idea that data is gold waiting to be mined; that all entities (including people) are best understood as nodes in a network; that things are at their clearest when they are least particular, most interchangeable, most aggregated - well, perhaps that is not the theology of the average lit department (yet). But it is surely the theology of the 21st century.

Kathryn Schulz, "What is distant reading?" The New York Times, June 24, 2011.

Professor Franco Moretti who coined the term "distant reading" for this new critical enterprise suggests that "scholars should step back from scrutinizing individual texts to probe whole systems by counting, mapping, and graphing novels." To scientists and advocates of quantitative research, this might seem obvious. But to most literary critics and qualitative researchers, "counting, mapping, and graphing" are alien creatures that remain metaphors rather than actualized in their interpretive methods.

How do changes in modes of providing access to knowledge alter the ways in which knowledge is created and used?

- Marlene Manoff, "The materiality of digital collections: Theoretical and historical perspectives", portal: Libraries and the academy, 6:3, 2006, 311-325.

Under the sign of the digital, Marlene Manoff suggests new directions in modes of knowledge production, based on the availability of resources, tools, and interpretive methods. Digitisation is the key to realizing the potential of digital humanities where we create not the big data of science, but the rich data of cultural activity in all its fascinating, annoying, invigorating, and fragmented depth.

What does the past look like through the lens of digital culture?

- Liek Tredinnick, "The making of History: Remediating historicised experience", History and the digital age, ed Toni Weller, London and NY, Routledge, 2013, 311-325.

Stan Ruecker formerly of the University of Alberta and now at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and his team are investigating the cognate worlds of data mining and data visualization in order to understand the phenomenon of repetition as both a literary device and an interpretive strategy. A number of prototypes of humanities visualizations are currently under development.

FeatureLens in use, providing different views on a text that has been computer analysed.

The most advanced is based on FeatureLens, developed by Anthony Don at the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland. The FeatureLens interface enables the user to study a text in four different views: on the left is a list of repeated phrases generated by the user performing a single-word search across the text in question; the centre panel colour-codes these phrases and positions them in the context of the document; the line graph at the top displays frequencies across the collection; and the reading pane on the right delivers the text block in which the word or phrase appears.

Visualisation of a text using 'radar screens'. It looks complex.

The second of Ruecker’s prototypes identifies recurrent patterns using flat radar screens to signal the presence of repeated words or phrases and three-dimensional transparent sheets that represent the same text in space, and thus across time. Colour-coding and reading panes are also used in this model.

Texts visualised by creating paper loops that show the distance between instances of a common keyword.

The third prototype removes the conventions of the codex page and takes a diagrammatic approach to typography. Textualise the spine of a book by identifying the most common word and then add some simple paper engineering by constructing physical information loops that move away from and towards the spine depending on your distance from the key word. This gives you a very different model for reading and indeed for seeing the book as form than, say the uni-dimensional graphs of Google’s n-gram tool.

Visualising complexity

An visual depiction of an element of string theory. I can't help you any more than that.Calabir-Yau manifold, via Wikipedia.

I like to think of the Mobius strip or even this model from string theory to help visualize complexity.

Given this visual context, let’s turn the macroscope onto digital history.

Digital history 2.0

  • Collaborate and innovate
  • Experimetn with data
  • Becoming a 'programming historian'
  • Immerse yourself in 'the hermeneutics of screwing around' (Ramsay, 2010)
  • Reconceptualise digital resources as data-processing devices rather than delivery mechanisms

Digital history is an internationally recognized approach to historical studies that is defined as the application of digital technologies to investigating and representing the past, capitalising on increasingly available web-delivered digitised resources and enabling scholars and students 'to make, define, query, and annotate associations in the human record of the past' (Seefeldt & Thomas, 2009) often in the context of Web 2.0 social media and gaming interfaces. Here’s a few of my favourite digital things.

Plotting Time magazine covers showing the increase in the use of colour over time, and plotting manga by character portrayals.Visualisations by softwarestudies.com. Top to bottom: Time magazine covers, 1923-2009; 800 pages of Anatolia Story.

In his 2007 essay, "Cultural Analytics. Analysis and Visualisation of Large Cultural Data Sets," Lev Manovich asked

Can we create quantitative measures of cultural innovation? Can we have a real-time detailed map of global cultural production and consumption? Can we visualize flows of cultural ideas, images, and trends? Can we visually represent how cultural and lifestyle preferences – whether for music, forms, designs, or products – gradually change over time?

These two visualisations epitomize design solutions to his questions. The first depicts the covers of Time magazine over eighty-six years, offering a snapshot of the transition from black and white to colour printing. The second is a map of Japanese manga comics organised according to character portrayals, demonstrating how focused the genre is with very few outliers or wildcards.

Visualisation of the additions and deletions across six editions of Darwin's The Origin of Species, by chapter.The preservation of favoured traces.

Ben Fry, the developer of Processing, an integrated workbench for data visualization took all 190,000 words comprising Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and visualised change over the 6 editions revised during Darwin’s lifetime. Notable is that the phrase “survival of the fittest” which is synonymous with our understanding of Darwin’s theory of evolution only emerged in the 5th edition and wasn’t even Darwin’s own term; it came from a sociologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer. Why did Fry take this particular approach? He was driven by a key research question: how do scientific theories undergo adaptation before their widespread acceptance?

Preview of 'Inventing the map': Frances Henshaw's book of penmanship, showing a region-coded map of Vermont.

Bethany Nowviski is currently Director of the Digital Library Federation but was formerly at the University of Virginia’s Scholars’ Lab and was named as one of the top ten tech innovators in 2013 by the Chronicle of Higher Education. She uses Omeka and Neatline, collection management and geotemporal storytelling tools, to capture a feminist tale of mapmaking featuring a 14-year-old girl who, in 1823, invented textually-derived maps and cartographically-arranged texts in response to her geography lessons.

Mitchell Whitelaw, University of Canberra, AUS works in cultural heritage sector and is known internationally for what he terms "generous interfaces," using digital techniques to enable users to expose, view, and explore an entire collection.

An overlaid collage image showing a large telescope and the exterior of a quite fancy building.

A recent speculative work, Succession (2014), generates digital fossils from heritage collections in Newcastle-on-Tyne.

Each composite image is unique, generated by selecting five items at random from a set of about two thousand. At a rate of one per second it would take about eight million years to see every combination.

And, as he further remarks,

This work reveals layers of our shared heritage, rearranging and compressing them to seek out new meanings and latent stories. Our industrial culture was founded on coal: a fossil fuel, a compressed residue made from the dead bodies of ancient plants and animals. Succession in turn produces visual fossils: compressed energy to fuel reflection on the past, and speculation on the future.

Screenshot of a tool that fades in, animates, and overlays snippets of text. It's sort of spooky.

Drifter, from 2016

is a multilayered portrait of the Murrumbidgee river system. Historic images, newspaper articles, scientific observations and digital maps create tens of thousands of data points that come together in three ever-changing views. Map uses digital newspaper articles to trace fragments of the river's (white) history, from everyday life to large-scale interventions. Alongside these human stories, thousands of scientific observations reveal some of the nonhuman life of the river. Sifter transforms text into texture, drifting through text snippets from newspaper articles discussing the Murrumbidgee and its tributaries, piecing together the names of some of the living things that go unmentioned in these accounts. Compositor combines historic images from library and archive collections with contemporary images from fieldwork monitoring the health of the river's wetland ecology.

Map of the lower North Island and upper South Island. In action, the map dynamically shows social media relating to Anzac Day.

Closer to home, we have Michael Harcourt’s work in the Hypercities platform that geolocates Wellington over time and captures the resonances of Anzac Day and its memorialisation through live, geolocated twitter feeds.

Pages from Ensign SPT Nicholl: The New Zealand Journey, on StoryMapJS, showing maps with heritage images and narrative tied to locations.

Charlotte Macdonald’s Marsden project, Soldiers of Empire, features several summer scholars undertaking research explorations that use the storytelling platform StoryMapJS to engage with topics as diverse as the stomach at war, soldiers on the march, and this one, by John McLellan, visualizing the journey to Taranaki of Ensign Spencer Nicholl.

Map of the lower North Island and upper South Island, showing places of note by themes of history, biography, contemporary social issues, te reo Māori, and more.

Also at Victoria, Ocean Mercier along with her colleagues and students are compiling a Māori Cultural Atlas using Google Earth to explore themes such as environment, te reo, placenames and contemporary social issues.

Grid of pages of survey forms received by the Royal Anthropological Society of Australia regarding Aboriginal place names at the turn of the 20th century.

Chris McDowall, formerly of DigitalNZ, recently dropped into the State Library of NSW’s new DX Lab and produced the 'rich prospect browsing' interface weemala to expose aboriginal placenames in The Anthropological Society of Australasia Survey from 1899-1903.

And thanks to Chris we can now surface this new engagement strategy from the Waikato Civil Defense team:

You’ll recall Philip Ethington’s comment cited earlier, "History is a map of those places made by human action." All these maps, as I boldly suggest we should call them, exemplify both the storytelling impulse and the power storytelling provides in putting the humane back in human.

Visualization is much, much more than what it appears to be at first glance.

The real power of visualization goes beyond visual representation and basic perception.

Real visualization means interaction, analysis, and a human in the loop who gains insight.

Real visualization is a dynamic process, not a static image.

Real visualization does not puzzle, it informs.

- Robert Kosara, flowingdata.com

And these maps are successful because they are grounded in a clear understanding of the principles of data visualization. In fact, our best contemporary mapmakers might just be data artists if not data poets.

I’d like to conclude with two stories, one slightly frivolous, the other of more enduring import. Orlebar Brown is a cult-favourite British menswear brand founded by photographer Adam Brown in 2007. According to their website, the company

specializes in well-tailored swimwear that effortlessly transitions from poolside to après-swim outings. This season, the company is expanding its ready-to-wear offerings with a capsule collection made in collaboration with Savile Row tailor Gieves & Hawkes. Inspired by 19th-century maps, the line includes cargo trousers as well as Orlebar Brown’s signature swim trunks and T-shirts—all imprinted with a spirit of adventure.

Two pairs of board shorts with maps as design elements.

You note that the image on the right features Livingstone’s journey to darkest Africa – the mind boggles! And it gets better:

Now, thanks to Orlebar Brown’s new Design Your Own service, customers can memorialize their own photographs onto their swim shorts. Available through the new #SnapShorts app (downloadable via iTunes and Google Play) as well as in-store and online, the service (priced at $595) lets you choose the length and size of the swim trunks, then upload your own photograph, sketch, or pattern to convert into a print. You can adjust the image to your preference and preview the garment front and back before placing the order for your personalized swim shorts, which will be delivered in three weeks.

Inner forearm tattoo, showing a map of the world. It doesn't appear to include New Zealand.

Despite the bodiless swimsuit, inserting the person back into the map is a critical strategy for contemporary mapmakers. Take this recent posting from an online gaming community discussion forum:

So I signed up for June 17 to get my first tattoo, which is going to go on my shoulder. I want the design to mimic old school style maps and charts so that in the future if I decide to get more tattoos I can connect them as such.

Far more than the usual coffee mugs, keychains, Kleenex box holders, clocks, ties, mousepads, and souvenir totebags, such embodied maps reconfigure our relationship between space, place, location, site, as well as time, whether drawn on human skin, on parchment, or on a pixelated canvas.

In 2001, Canadian novelist Thomas Wharton wrote Salamander in which magic realism meets historical narrative. The eighteenth-century London printer, Nicholas Flood, is commissioned by the mad Hungarian Count Ostrov, to print the book of infinity, a book that contains all other books. Of course, he falls in love with the count’s daughter, Irena, who later gives birth to Pica (the name is a bit of an in-joke for typesetters).

Irena is banished and Nicholas searches the globe for her while assembling the necessary supplies for his impossible printing task. Along the way, he meets a cast of extraordinary characters who entertain him with stories, like this one about Seshat, goddess of archive. It starts with an old librarian who is terrified his precious books will be ravaged by the infidel, in this case Christian monks wishing to destroy pagan knowledge.

...One day he noticed the ink stains on the hands of the many scribes who toiled at copying the books, and a wild idea came into his head.

The librarian called together all his assistants, all the scribes, copyists, and book-menders. Employing tattoo artists equipped with the quills of porcupine fish and ink made of acacia oil, the librarian ordered the text of one book to be inscribed on the flesh of each man. Only those parts of the body that would not be hidden by clothing were left unmarked. The dictating and inscribing took many days...

...The secret of the tattooed men might have been safe but for the unlucky moment when one of them, driven by the thirst of curiosity, stood naked in front of a brass mirror and began to read, laboriously translating aloud the sinuous, backwards script that coiled around his body.

He found it to be a verse epic celebrating the numerous episodes of intimate congress between gods and mortals. Yet there were, to his dismay, sections of the book, on the small of his back, his shoulder blades, and elsewhere, which no amount of agonizing contortion allowed him to glimpse. Desperate to fill in the missing verses, he visited a brothel and requested a woman who could read. He did not know that the enemy, from long experience of the places where valuable secrets are revealed, had stocked every house of pleasure with spies.

Under torture the tattooed man surrendered the details of the librarians plan. A list of all the book-men was swiftly drawn up. One by one they were hunted down and killed, the skin then stripped from their bodies and burned to ashes.

Legend has it, however, tha a woman, an Abyssinian slave, who was chosen only out of necessity because the librarian ran out of time and men's bodies, was the last to be inscribed. This women alone of the tattooed fraternity managed to escape with her life and her secret. She took the name Seshat, goddess of archives, sister of Thoth, or as the Greeks called him, Hermes Trismegistus.

Seshat wandered for years through the empire of the conquering faith, carrying the last of the librarian's books concealed from her enemies, and over time she gathered around her a small group of readers to whom she revealed her secret.

The book she bore upon her flesh was rumoured to be a treatise by Hermes himself on the lost art of never dying. No one knows if that is true, but the legend tells us that when Seshat grew older, she had the markings copied onto one of her younger followers, with instructions to do likewise...

Marks, bodies, stories, maps. Through the affordances of digital technologies, we can tell new stories with old maps, we can tell old stories with new maps, but we can also just tell stories, the essence of the human condition.

By Sydney Shep

Dr Sydney Shep is Reader in Book History at Victoria University of Wellington and The Printer, Wai-te-ata Press.

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