Over the past few weeks, I have been working on creating a publicly accessible, visual supplement to my current archival research. My dissertation project assesses the state of opera production in the United States during the 1920s, and its scope includes the coverage of multiple national touring productions. As such, I am developing an interactive map of American touring opera companies—tentatively titled “Mapping American Opera”— in collaboration with Studio GIS Specialist Jay Bowen. Using the archived tour schedules from the University’s Redpath Chautauqua Collections and open-source mapping software, Jay and I have developed a sample map representing two years of national tours, and in the process, I am expanding my own capabilities as a researcher and communicator.
Prior to this summer fellowship, my strengths as a researcher were archival and reception histories, and my preferred methods of communication were based solely on written prose. My master’s thesis covered the operations of a single opera company on the chautauqua circuits. Business documents, professional and personal correspondence, promotional materials, and press clippings all pointed to the company’s nationwide touring presence, covering the vast majority of the contiguous Unites States. This point was made in-text and a sample tour schedule was provided as a visual aid—a list of towns on a promotional leaflet. Yet, I still felt as if the true spatial impact of some two hundred annual performances remained unrecognized. Rather than a static collection of locations, the archived tour routes represent a largely forgotten cultural phenomenon that reached large swaths of the American population. What was needed to fully illustrate the impact of this data was a tool that it temporally and geographically. That is, I needed an interactive map that plotted points across a set amount of time, thus representing the motion of a tour in progress. At the time, however, I had neither the time nor the skills to create such a map.
Now, three years later, the guidance and protected time offered by the Digital Scholarship & Publishing Summer Fellowship has made it easier to begin the process. During the summer session, my collaboration with Jay revealed the effectiveness of digital maps for the archival work I do. Displaying my data spatially ultimately lends a sense of tangibility to the historical realities documented in print. Going forward, these skills will make for important accompaniments to my scholarship and will ideally result in a web-based tool for others interested in this data.