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DC by the Book takes readers to novel locations

Wednesday - 3/27/2013, 12:22pm  ET

The new website DC by the Book shows viewers books and passages that reference areas in the city. (Courtesy of DC by the Book)
  • Gallery: (7 images)

Alex Beall, special to

WASHINGTON - Have you ever visited the iconic "Exorcist" steps in Georgetown, where a Jesuit priest fell to his death in the 1973 movie? If you couldn't remember exactly how the scene played out or never read the book, a new website will help add some context to your visit.

The nation's capital is popping out of the pages of fiction and onto a map with DC by the Book which launched Tuesday.

Using Google map technology, viewers can click on map points shaped as books and see what book, author and passage reference an area in D.C. Each pinpoint on the map features the book passage and a link to the DC Public Library catalog where a member can reserve the book.

Tony Ross, 41, a librarian at the DC Public Library, spearheaded the project.

"We can all read a history of Washington, D.C., and learn about the city and learn about how it's changed, but it's a completely different thing to be in a story…and to come across a little hidden part of the city or a hidden piece of the city's history," Ross says.

The website is a project of the DC Public Library, which received a $20,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for funding.

"It's part of the library's larger mission to promote a love of reading and excitement about reading and also part of our larger mission to give people a chance to play with new technology and expand their digital skills," Ross says.

The website will start with a list of 300 books and will show whether each book has been unmapped, partially mapped or fully mapped. The website will rely on users to add new locations, books and passages for review. The book list includes "Lincoln" by Gore Vidal, "The Exorcist" by William Peter Blatty and "Watergate" by Thomas Mallon.

The library's book clubs will also each read a D.C.-based book and map it on the website to help add content.

"We're really counting on the public to help us make it richer by adding content," Ross says.

Ross and the library's special collections manager, Kim Zablud, 34, compiled 1,000 books set in D.C. using the library's Washingtoniana local history collection, among other resources.

The idea struck Ross in the mid-90s while he read D.C.-based books by George Pelecanos.

"Every 20 pages I'd be like, ‘Oh I know where that is,'" Ross says. "After about four or five of those I was thinking, ‘It would be cool to have a map of all the locations in his books!'"

After Google maps became accessible to the public, Ross's idea became possible and he shared his plan with Zablud.

Zablud says the project caused her to notice new details in the District and will also get the community to engage with the city.

"The power of the story is making an interesting connection," she says. "It transports us and teaches us about our history, but not in a textbook way, but in a very felt way."

The team hopes other cities will use the idea to create their own mapping websites. Ross says the website could also prompt writers to ask, "How can I represent my neighborhood, which has never really been brought to life in fiction?"

To celebrate the website's launch, Busboys and Poets will host a party which includes a combination of staged readings of passages, a discussion about the website and talks by authors who have written stories set in D.C., such as Thomas Mallon, Adam McKible and George Pelecanos.

Project partners the Historical Society of Washington, DC, the Humanities Council of Washington, DC and Cultural Tourism DC will hold other author-focused events in the upcoming months. The DC Public Library will also host four "mapathons" at the library, where the public can map new passages.

Zablud says she's looking forward to seeing how much content they can crowd source.

"The more content and the more themes and decades in there, the more interesting the snapshot will be that you can take of the city," she says.

See some of the books on the map in the gallery above.

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