The World Historical Gazetteer: A Digital Humanities Interface for Transregional Research
By Susan Grunewald, Ruth Mostern, and Karl Grossner
As digital projects become increasingly popular for the humanities, linked open data (LOD) is a means to combine the efforts of many individual researchers and research teams to enable truly transregional research. The World Historical Gazetteer, a project funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and hosted by the University of Pittsburgh’s World History Center, is an example of a digital humanities interface for transregional research. Version 2.0 of the WHG launched in Summer 2021.
The WHG is an online system that indexes place data drawn from historical sources contributed by research projects and individuals studying the past from many disciplinary perspectives such as history, archeology, and anthropology. To date, the system has about 60,000 temporally scoped place records, which supplies temporal depth to a core list of about 1.8 million place records. The WHG provides a collection of content and services that permit world historians, their students, and the general public to do spatial and temporal reasoning and visualization in a data rich environment at global and trans-regional scales. The WHG uses two standardized LOD formats, Linked Places and Linked Traces, to promote the analysis and sharing of historical spatial data. In addition to our growing collection of place data, the WHG is working to develop content collections and trace data. Collections are groups of places united around a large historical phenomenon or theme. One such published example is HGIS de las Indias, which groups the settlements of Bourbon Spanish America from 1701 to 1808 with the political and religious administrative territorios.
Traces are a form of annotating place records in the WHG with published web resources about historical events, people, artistic works, and objects. The annotations assert a relation between the trace and the place (for instance, they note that a place was the waypoint on a journey or the birthplace of an individual) and they attest a year or timespan during which the trace and the place were connected. Each annotation record joins one trace resource with any number of places. In connection with one another, one or multiple trace records link places together to create spatially explicit historical narratives. Examples of traces contributions in the WHG include “Hernán Cortes and the Conquest of the Aztec Empire” and “The Journey of Xuanzang, a seventh century Buddhist monk.”
By preparing place and trace data in corresponding standard formats, any researcher can share their data with a wide variety of platforms not limited to the WHG, vastly increasing the reach and potential users of their data. Using these spatial historical templates will make historical spatial data easy to find, access, interoperate, and reuse.
While the WHG is a system for storing and linking spatial research data, it is also a system to generate research data. Users uploading data to the WHG contribute to one of the project’s core principles of aggregating attestations of place names from multiple sources, allowing for multivocality in spatial history. The WHG’s editorial team ensures the quality of user contributions before they are published. In addition to contributing to the goals of the WHG, data uploads promote the research of users. For those who are not comfortable with using geographic information system (GIS) mapping, the WHG provides a point and click interface to take a list of names and produce a simple map. The WHG matches historic place names with modern ones and links them with their latitude and longitude coordinates, a process that is known as geocoding. Geocoding is often a burdensome process, especially with historical names, but the WHG makes it a simple point and click process called reconciliation. Users can then use the generated maps to try to answer initial questions or generate further research questions. They can also download the images files of the maps rendered in the system. Users with GIS competency can download an augmented data file that includes the coordinates found through the WHG reconciliation process. The downloadable augmented dataset can then be used for further analysis in web or desktop-based GIS platforms.
The real power of the WHG for research is evident when the information is aggregated together, particularly with regard to either content collections or traces. The WHG allows for users to develop new historical findings by placing spatial data in conversation on a regional or world scale across time. The “Dutch History” collection in development serves as an example for how to use the WHG for transregional research. This collection under construction will show places related to Dutch history and collect historical Dutch place names. As more place and trace records are added to the collection, it will present and integrate a wide range of projects on Dutch history with spatial components. This particular collection is being compiled by the KNAW Humanities Cluster from new and existing datasets created by a variety of different institutions, projects, and individual researchers, illustrating the way that the WHG can foster transregional research in two senses: research of a transnational scope as well as research conducted by individuals and partner institutions across the globe.
Susan Grunewald is the Digital History Postdoctoral Associate at the University of Pittsburgh World History Center, where she works on the World Historical Gazetteer project. Her personal research examines German prisoners of war in the Soviet Union during and after World War II.
Ruth Mostern is the Director of the University of Pittsburgh World History Center and an Associate Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. She is a specialist in spatial and environmental history focusing on imperial China and the world.
Karl Grossner is a research affiliate of the University of Pittsburgh World History Center. He is an independent geographic researcher and Digital Humanities research developer working to develop novel models, data format standards, and semantically‑enabled software and systems supporting the emerging genre of digital historical atlases.
Further articles in the Digital Humanities Interface series on TRAFO:
Thorben Pelzer, Retracing Professional Mobility: Historical Network Analysis through CERD, 11 November 2021
Ninja Steinbach-Hüther and Thomas Efer, The Digital Humanities Interface – An Introduction, 28 September 2021
Citation: Susan Grunewald, Ruth Mostern, and Karl Grossner, The World Historical Gazetteer: A Digital Humanities Interface for Transregional Research, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 21.02.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/33401