The map project that UI's Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio built for the International Writing Program aims to visualize a mass of unruly data consisting of the more than 1500 writers from a fluctuating number of countries, 150 and counting. Because of the program’s longevity—now over five decades—its roster and aggregate counts reflect, among other things, the considerable changes in the world’s geopolitical map since the program’s founding in 1967. Thus, what at that point counted as one country—Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, USSR, German Democratic Republic—could some decades later split into two, six, ten, new ones, or disappear completely, with a writer’s national identity left uncertain in the political spectrum: should pre-1993 Soviet writers be aggregated alongside Russians after USSR disintegrated? How to graphically render writers coming from the same geographic space, but which some preferred to call, in the spirit of political dissent, “Burma” and others, more formally, “Myanmar”? Etc.
The ruling principle of the site design was to allow whenever possible a writer’s preferred self-identification by creating new features whenever necessary. In addition to basic search categories, such as year of participation, gender, genre, age, or profession, the map makes it possible, for instance, to identify participants who write in more than one language—an attempt to inflect the map software’s geopolitical infrastructure with the emergent and increasingly common condition of transnationality.
The site’s timeline feature—where the user can observe historical patterns—makes apparent long-term changes in the program’s focus and reach: thus for instance after more than a decade of Taiwanese participants only, Mainland China surfaces on the map in 1979. Finally, the map also makes visible the blank spaces, the countries from which no writer has so far participated in the IWP. One by one, the data in this category will hopefully be shrinking further with each coming year.
We are grateful to designer Mark NeuCollins for his willingness to patiently take on the many automation-resistant design challenges, and to GIS specialist Jay Bowen for assorted indispensable updates.
Writing samples since 2001, annual reports, and related materials are archived in the Iowa Research Online section of the UI Libraries, here.