Skip to main content

Review: World Historical Gazetteer

A review of World Historical Gazetteer, an open access index of historical geographical places, directed by Ruth Mostern and Karl Grossner

Published onMay 28, 2024
Review: World Historical Gazetteer

World Historical Gazetteer

Project Directors
Ruth Mostern, University of Pittsburgh
Karl Grossner, University of Pittsburgh

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Diane K. Jakacki, Bucknell University

Project Overview

Ruth Mostern and Karl Grossner

World Historical Gazetteer (WHG) is a web-based software platform for linking and publishing data about historical places contributed by researchers studying the past from numerous disciplinary perspectives within the humanities and social sciences. The platform provides services and features that support the geocoding and mapping of sources, gazetteer development, and teaching at secondary and post-secondary levels. WHG audiences include researchers, students, teachers, and the general public interested in historical places.

Specifically, registered users of the platform can:

  • Upload place data in one of two formats created for the project: (i) Linked Places format (GeoJSON extension allowing temporal scoping of attributes) and (ii) LP-TSV (a delimited file format for relatively simpler data);

  • Augment their data by reconciling against Wikidata, gaining additional coordinate geometry and/or authority identifiers;

  • Publish their augmented datasets, providing record-level access, with links back to detailed information related to the places and/or project pages;

  • Link their individual records with others’ in the WHG index — a further reconciliation step that helps to grow sets of attestations for each given place, drawn from multiple disparate sources;

  • Explore and reuse the 2 million+ attestations gathered so far, in search, browse, and download features. The platform API supports integrations with other platforms, e.g. Recogito and Annotorious; 

  • Create and publish collections. Groups can collaboratively assemble a gazetteer for a region by linking their datasets in a WHG Dataset Collection. Also, thematic Place Collections can be assembled from individual annotated records drawn from one or more datasets, of particular use in teaching scenarios; and

  • Use WHG features in teaching, particularly Place Collections and contributed lesson plans.

Spatial humanists and others have long recognized the enormous integrative potential of using places as common points of reference for heterogeneous information. To reach this goal, collections of named places must be abundant, diverse, collectively assembled, and historically deep. Given that the names and attributes of places vary over time and between communities, often in the context of struggles over power and authority, ambitious development of linked, diverse, and multilingual gazetteers is absolutely vital. 

Important priorities for WHG include the surfacing of suppressed place names and difficult histories, and, by connecting place names across time and space, supporting peoples’ discoveries about past places and storytelling about power and resistance.

Development began in 2017 and is ongoing, having received support from two major National Endowment for the Humanities grants, from the Royal Dutch Academies Humanities Cluster (KNAW), and from International Studies centers within the University of Pittsburgh. The project was voted “Best DH Tool or Suite of Tools” in the 2021 DH Awards.

The project is led by Ruth Mostern, a specialist in spatial and environmental history focusing on imperial China and the world. Technical and content development has been led since the project’s inception by long-time colleague Karl Grossner, a geographer specializing in geographic information modeling and dissemination. The project team has over time included three postdoctoral fellows and several research assistants within Mostern’s World History Center at Pitt whose contributions have been invaluable and whose own professional expertise and prospects have been broadened.

Project Review

Diane K. Jakacki

The World Historical Gazetteer (WHG) project provides tools and services for the use and dissemination of stable linkable temporo-spatial place data. By providing tools and infrastructure for researchers and students to contribute historical place names and data from multiple sources over time and across cultural and linguistic contexts, the project aims to establish a resource for structured, reusable linked information about place. To date over 140,000 historical place records have been contributed — a profound contribution to the international community of researchers working to reconcile and articulate complex understandings of place. Importantly, WHG is committed to decentering place names imposed by colonial groups, thereby encouraging toponymic multivalence. 

WHG is a portal rather than a repository for research, providing means whereby historical documentary attestations are communicated while not claiming authority for those attestations. Rather, records on the WHG index include links back to the researchers’ contextual evidence. The project is built upon a complex software stack that involves two data stores and a number of interconnected APIs to support editorial and publication work. Contributors upload and reconcile their data against authority resources (Wikidata and the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names) thereby providing “close matches” for named places. The WHG has collaborated with the Pelagios Project to develop the Linked Places data format, which makes contributing to the resource more accessible for researchers, teachers, and students. The project has also incorporated a robust pedagogical resources section to encourage use of WHG in a variety of classroom settings as well as with scholarly research projects.

The WHG is an ambitious project, bringing historical, cultural and place studies into dialogue through the Semantic web. Mostern, Grossner, and the team members who have developed the Gazetteer have made a profound contribution to the ways in which we think expansively about place in time; their work helps us in particular to challenge imperial naming practices imposed by hegemonic forces that constrict understandings of space and place. 

Therefore, the WHG has taken up a very important challenge: to recognize the “fuzziness” of spatial understanding. Can one person’s identification and description of a place align with another person’s? How is this possible in data contexts that often privilege one knowledge system over another, and (inadvertently or not) privilege settler-namings over indigenous namings and spatial associations. By encouraging researchers to engage with one another’s documentary evidence and resulting attestations via the WHG index pages that point back to the projects that have contributed data, the Gazetteer delivers on a promise for humanists working with confounding historical data — to give room for dialogue rather than imposing one authority over all others.

This is in part a result of the project’s definition of itself as a portal and a series of tools rather than an authority on place data, inviting dialogue and communication rather than dictating naming decisions. This can be seen in the robust educational platform that the team has created, that encourages students and teachers to contribute to different aspects of the project at the same time that it instills in students in multiple educational contexts ways in which they can engage in acts of counter-mapping, and so develop more capacious understandings of place across time, culture, and language.

Considering the painstaking nature of this work — not only in the development of data models that are responsive to the kinds of data that need to be accommodated, but also in the training of researchers in order to effectively contribute their source data — it is astonishing how much the WHG has been able to undertake. This contribution by Mostern, Grossner, and the rest of the team cannot be understated. But as with many digital humanities projects of this scale, the future is somewhat precarious, and the principles are reliant upon software developers as well as researchers to be sustainable. With funding and community-support for at least the next three years, the WHG can continue to pursue its ambitious goals, and will continue to balance the need to reveal suppressed place names and confront difficult histories with the interests and focus domains of its committed research communities. 

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?