Smart Cities and Engaged Readers

The One Book One Chicago program is a useful optic to capture how readers engage with literature in various ways across time. As contemporary literary experience continues to evolve with and across mobile platforms, and to disperse and thicken in measurable pools of social media data, those who seek to capture and analyze reading behavior increasingly need the tools of data science. As so-called smart cities entangle civic life with code (and its associated rhythms and metrics), the very imagination of the city — by residents, planners, cultural workers, and more — changes, functioning as an experimental “space-time machine” in technology and governance. [1] Social media platforms facilitate new kinds of research and visualization of cultural phenomena at the scale of the city. [2] As a pioneering “city of big data,” Chicago is a powerful laboratory for study of the mediated uptake of cultural forms in bulk. Study of contemporary cultural experience is increasingly a matter of statistically sampling from an attention economy, and the RCR project has a repeating means of capturing and mapping the literary readership of the city by means of public library data and other forms of information.

The goal of Reading Chicago Reading is the creation of open source tools and methods for public librarians and DH scholars to produce the kind of the predictive insight now being generated by proprietary software in the music industry and for mass market book sales. When a large public library system ‘sponsors’ a city-wide collective reading event — and makes the book selection part of a larger ensemble of multimedia programming — what can we learn about the active shape of cultural perception across a metropolitan region? How does one live the city differently when one is simultaneously reading (about) the same city, in fiction or non-fiction? Does one engage more? What are the effects of participating in transmedia book culture in an increasingly “smart” city?

When “One Book” programming consists, for example, of guided city tours, group maker events, dances, and community gardening, what new forms of virtual space and citizenship are created, or accessed? Just as importantly, how does this vary by neighborhood? Given circulation data from the library system, city data (demographics, voting records, and the like), associated social media data (via publicly-accessible APIs) and quantitative measures of the chosen books, it is possible to quantify changes in the city-scale attention economy — to capture and, as far as possible, quantify, how Chicago’s social media space and civic life changed because of year-long programming on the theme of, for example, “Music: The Beat of the City” (2017-18) or “Food” (2016-17). Can the evolving cultural beat of a city be sampled by way of its public library data? Our project works on the premise that it can.

[1] Rob Kitchin, “The Timescape of Smart Cities.” The Programmable City Working Paper 35 (27 Nov 2017), 26.
[2] John D. Boy and Justus Uitermark, “How to Study the City on Instagram.” PLoS ONE 11(6): e0158161. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0158161. See also Lev Manovich’s many projects, for example “SelfieCity” ( and “On Broadway” (

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