Be a time-traveling tourist

Interactive map connects historic books to real-world places


Soon you’ll be able to experience Madrid, Valencia or Barcelona the way travelers did hundreds of years ago. From the gardens of El Capricho Park to the winding streets of downtown Seville, Spain is bursting with history. To experience it you won’t need to bend the rules of time and space or get in the passenger seat of a DeLorean either.

Simply looking at a map will unlock its rich history.

“Time, Routes, and Places of Nineteenth-Century Travelers: A Dynamic Interactive Map of Spain as an International Destination,” an initiative by Dr. Eugenia Afinoguénova, associate professor of Spanish, creates a connection between travel literature of the “long 19th century” (1789-1914) and present-day locations. A bibliography of 100 travel books will be analyzed to develop a database of information that can be transferred to an interactive map.

Software will help map locations mentioned in the text, which users can click on to see what people from the century were visiting, how they were getting there, what they thought of the attractions and how long their travels took.

The process is called “qualitative mapping,” and Afinoguénova noted that it has important implications for Spain’s present tourism industry.

“People decide to visit a place based on its reputation that is steeped in oral or written tradition. Qualitative mapping of texts is a way of studying these traditions and making them visible,” Afinoguénova said.

In the past half century, Spain’s tourism industry has grown to be the third largest in the world. Afinoguénova believes this is due, to a large extent, to its romanticized past, a trait sought by travelers both now and during the period of the texts in Afinoguénova’s research.

Hoping to escape the unsettling consequences of 19th century modernization, travelers from the United Kingdom and the United States were drawn to Spain’s quaint, historic nature. This created a booming industry of travel literature.

“In the 19th century, travel books about Spain were best sellers,” Afinoguénova said.

Mapping the routes of travelers reveals not only travel styles, but also the importance of route options.

Afinoguénova became interested in how people traveled and how they described the places they visited in 2011. Later that year, she received a grant to fund two undergraduate researchers. Afinoguénova worked with the researchers to design the project — creating a bibliography, designing a questionnaire for the texts, preparing instructions for volunteers and building the project’s website.

The bibliography features 100 travel books in various languages — English, German, French, Russian, Spanish and Arabic — and by male and female writers.

To collect data for the map, a request for volunteers was published on the project’s website and Facebook page. Fifteen volunteers sifted through the texts, filling out a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, which highlighted important facts about the writers, locations and descriptions.

Working through each book individually is labor intensive and time consuming. Forty books have been entered into the database. In 2012 Afinoguénova received another grant, this one allowed her to dedicate time to locating software that could collect data without needing volunteers to read each text.

Her time with the data-mining volunteers may have been short-lived, but Afinoguénova reflected on their impact to the project and the connections they created.

“Some of the volunteers I had never met before, and the project drew us together, leading to other collaborations,” she said.

Collaborations have been an important of bringing Afinoguénova’s vision to life.

Dr. Praveen Madiraju, associate professor of mathematics, statistics and computer science and an expert in databases, together with his MS student created a prototype map that uses pins to mark locations. In a similar style to Google Maps, clicking on these pins reveals connected texts from the database.

The prototype map allows users to interact with locations to read descriptions over time.

Before the project is published, the team must find, or build, software that can smoothly move text from the database to a map. Afinoguénova noted that the costs of securing software designers’ time to work on the project are very high.


“It’s always an issue of time and money.”

The group is currently working on an application for a NEH Digital Humanities grant. In the meantime, Afinoguénova has received a prestigious fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. Giving Afinoguénova an opportunity to dedicate one year to research and writing only, the award will bring to fruition her previous project—a monograph dedicated to the cultural history of the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Afinoguénova is hopeful for work to continue because of the opportunities the mapping project brings to humanities studies.

“We are creating not just a database, but a way of using this kind of information.”

An interactive historical travel map like this is historic in itself. Nothing like it currently exists and once published, this style of research could be duplicated across genres. An open-source project, it lends itself to custom adaptation by other researchers.

Beyond implications for Spanish tourism, the project has academic applications as well. Users will “not only to visualize text on a map, but also see how different variables affect the stories that people tell about places.”

Analyzing how travelers described their surroundings often reveal the impact of historical events of the period or cultural biases.

“American writers of the Civil-War era constantly noted things associated with governance, war and political struggle,” Afinoguénova noted.

Gender issues also played a role in how the travel books were written. Former undergraduate researcher Aishah Al-Fadhalah and Afinoguénova co-authored a paper outlining the ways in which British women’s writing styles changed over the course of the 19th century to fit the male-dominated market that made the genre popular in the later part of the century.

According to Afinoguénova and Al-Fadhalah, women prior to the 1880s included more adjectives and personal reflections in their travelogues. This changed near the turn of the century, when travel literature became written almost exclusively in a more masculine style — numbers, fewer adjectives and the inclusion of politics.

Word cloud created by Chris Casey, fall 2012.

Creating “word clouds”(a graphic representation of a text’s most used words) is one way of determining how writers viewed destinations throughout history. For instance, a word cloud of Henry Martyn Field’s Old Spain and New Spain prepared by Chris Casey, who took Afinoguénova’s class on Travel Literature, highlighted the importance of the word “order” to the writer.

Afinoguénova admits that this forward-thinking project presents many challenges, but the impact it could have on understanding history, tourism and further research continues to motivate her.

“The project can be used to disseminate humanities research to audiences beyond the academia while also having an employment-creating potential for humanities students,” she said. “Imaginary maps can be used in tourism, urban planning, museums, local history research projects and so on.”

Research and reporting by Wyatt Massey, a junior studying writing-intensive English and advertising. Connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.