A new digital humanities project from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo could potentially offer deeper understandings of the history of printing, publishing and the allied trades. Through the use of digital mapping tools, users can manipulate data to analyze historical changes in the manufacturing, distribution, sales and consumption of paper and printed material.
Laura Sorvetti and Russ White, specialists at Cal Poly’s Kennedy Library, were influenced by the work of the geographer Anne Kelly Knowles (Middlebury College), a pioneer in using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to carry out historical and social scientific research. Knowles has used historical GIS to study the American Industrial Era, the Holocaust, and the Battle of Gettysburg. Sorvetti and White set out to apply a similar approach to study the geographical histories of paper and printing.
White’s contributions to the project have been national in scope, using information culled from the US Census Bureau and historical state and county boundary data from National Historical GIS (a resource providing historical spatial and tabular data for use in GIS and other statistical research). With data from the Censuses of Manufactures from 1840 and 1880, White was able to generate maps that provide a visualization of the dramatic changes in paper manufacturing and printing during this dynamic period in American industrial history.
Sorvetti made use of more geographically focused, detailed sources: San Francisco city directories (such as this one) found on the Internet Archive. She input data about printers, publishers, booksellers, and newspapers to create street-level visualizations of changes in the city’s economies and geographies of printing. A special facet of her work concentrated on the San Francisco printer Donald Bruce (ca. 1843-1938): Sorvetti’s Bruce-related maps tracked the migration of his business locations and residences between the 1860’s and early 1900’s.
Sorvetti and White hope to develop their research into a collaborative, interdisciplinary project that gives students and scholars a chance to engage with these tools, topics, and approaches. One impediment to progress is that much historical data on print and paper manufacturing remains trapped in analog formats, or in digitized formats that require laborious manual inputting of data (JPGs, PDFs, etc.).
“In the future,” Sorvetti said, “if our research leads to a sustained academic project, or if we can find alternative means (for example crowdsourcing), we could make more data readily available to be utilized by everyone for their own research and exploration.”