Four or five years ago, I explored several ideas concerning systematic accounts of African American literary texts. I gave special attention to the development of a quantitative project related to more than 100 volumes of African American poetry published since 2000. I arranged and re-arranged the books according to factors such as author last name, date of publication, publisher, numbers of pages, and publication formats.
My project on 100 volumes of African American poetry served as a kind of prototype for a more extensive endeavor, the 100 Black Novels Project, produced by my younger brother Kenton Rambsy, a graduate student in literature at the University of Kansas. He developed an even broader number of factors to consider associated with literary texts, including author educational attainment, geographic settings in the narratives, the nature of wikipedia coverage, and the awards received by a novelist. The data sets he developed made it possible for us to recognize several different patterns associated with black novels and publishing history.
A few months ago, literary scholar Lovalerie King asked me if I had any ideas about a tech-based activity that I could provide for participants at an upcoming NEH summer seminar on Contemporary African American Literature. I was already scheduled to make a presentation at the seminar on African American graphic novels, but the additional request gave me an opportunity to investigate how I might design a project that showcased -- in a visually stimulating and accessible format -- the kind of data collection and cataloging work that Kenton and I had pursued.
Since I recognized that I was dealing with a design and technological problem, I contacted Tristan Denyer, a web and graphic designer who has produced an extensive body of works for our black studies program when he was a student at SIUE and who I've hired to produce additional projects over the last few years. When I informed Tristan that I had extensive information on a large number of books that I wanted to re-present in user-friendly ways, he began, as usual, sending me several different models and options for displaying materials.
I initially had over 30 potential categories for the 50 novels; however, I followed Tristan's good advice to limit the categories to about 12 for now. At some point early on in the conversations with Tristan about the project, I envisioned a scene where I would insert books and piles of disorganized facts and figures about literature into some old-fashioned mechanical device that would somehow churn out a usefully structured list. It was that humorous vision that led me to refer to this project as the Novel Category Machine.
• The Novel Category Machine: An Introduction