Final Report: Urban Gazetteers

Pelagios
Pelagios
Jun 7 · 5 min read

Valeria Vitale and Susanna de Beer, 6 March 2019

A fragment of the Agas Map

Gazetteers are becoming a prominent tool in the digital humanities. The more scholars and GLAM specialists have used gazetteers, however, the more they have realised that they are often not granular enough for what they want to do. For example, to the ears of a museum professional or archaeologist, hearing that an artefact was found “in Rome” is of use only in the most generic sense. Therefore, URIs are needed not only for cities or settlements, but also for units within it, such as buildings, monuments, squares and other spaces. What is needed is, in our words, the development of urban gazetteers.

Urban gazetteers would be useful for:

  • Consolidating names: historical buildings have been named in different ways, according to the time period or the groups of users. A gazetteer will be able to associate the variant names to the same entity, helping researchers to identify more obscure references.
  • Enabling more granular metadata: connections between historical artefacts are often obscured by too generic place references in the metadata. Using intra-city references, scholars and GLAM professionals will be able to establish and discover more informative relationships.
  • Preserving the geometry of disappeared buildings: gazetteers can easily store geometries (i.e. the perimeter of a palace or temple) as locations. This information can be used, for example, to analyse and compare the evolution of a particular building or to preserve historical information about buildings that do not exist anymore in their materiality but have been documented.
  • Facilitating the aggregation of digital resources created in different disciplinary fields: there are a number of digital projects that have been exploring particular aspects of historical cities like Rome[1] or Istanbul, but they seldom communicate with each other. The availability of specific URIs for building and urban spaces will encourage academics and cultural heritage specialists to move towards a Linked Open Data approach and promote reuse of existing data.

In spite of the growing interest around them, however, there seem to be little or no examples of actual urban gazetteers (with the notable exception of MoEML). This was the reason for us to form a working group of interested people to start tackling the topic. Our goal in creating this community, formed of a mixed group of developers and users of gazetteers, was to make this a collaborative effort from the beginning, in order to establish some common working guidelines for anyone working in this field (see our first blogpost).

To this purpose we organized a workshop in Rome (see our second blogpost), in which we discussed urban gazetteers from a conceptual as well as from a technical point of view. We soon realized that on a conceptual level urban gazetteers more or less behave like settlement gazetteers, and have to harmonise two different elements: to identify and define places within a city, and to provide URIs that other digital resources can use.

At the same time, urban gazetteers open up very specific debates about the nature of buildings and other urban locations as “places”, which often present challenges in digital projects and, in particular, in the way we model the data. For example:

  • How do we represent the different strata of a building in and over different periods of time?
  • How do we represent locations whose coordinates are either unknown (i.e. places that we knew existed in the past but we are unable to pinpoint on a map) or non-existent (i.e. places that are mentioned in fictional accounts), but which are, nonetheless, part of the history and perception of the city?
  • How do we deal with building made with recycled materials, like churches built with the spolia of temples?
  • How do we deal with places that have changed their location?
  • What role does the function of a building play in its identity?

Instead of coming up with definitive answers and prescriptive guidelines, we decided instead to involve as many people as possible in the debate, to identify recurring questions, and to gather possible answers. To keep track of our discussion, we started compiling a sort of checklist of things to consider when starting to develop a urban gazetteer.

A little summary of our checklist involves, of course, asking what is the purpose of your endeavour and who are your ideal users. Another key preliminary question is what to include in the gazetteer. The issue is not trivial, as there are almost no precedents to refer to, and the level of granularity required can be very different from one project to another. Cities are complex, as complex as miniature worlds: trying to model them, systematically and diachronically, can feel like a never-ending task. Starting from a subset of the city, either as an area, a time period or a thematic group, could be a more reasonable approach, as long as the authors declare their biases.

As happens with other gazetteers, it is very likely that different projects will look at different aspects of the same city. For this reason it is important that we endeavour to remain as interoperable as possible. Before starting a new gazetteer, we believe it is best practice to survey what has already been done and, when possible, try to build on top of it. As for all data models, the key is probably in finding a balance between richness of information and usability.

In this phase we are still building an interested community that wants to share their experience and helps us creating a catalogue of examples and possible approaches to add to our checklist. Our next step is to come up with a simple format, bearing in mind the work currently carried out by the World Historical Gazetteer and aiming at full compatibility with their more general model.

So, there is still a lot of work to do! If you want to make references to buildings in the text you are encoding, if you want to enhance the granularity of the metadata in your digital archive, or if you are just passionate about urban history and the multiple lives of buildings, feel free to go through our document and add your comments and questions. If you have seen a great urban gazetteer let us know how it tackled some of the most recurring issues. Join us in the venture of designing urban gazetteers as useful tools to help establish, represent and query relationships between pieces of cultural heritage, but also as means to research, model, preserve and compare our knowledge about historical buildings and other urban elements.

[1] A survey of digital resources around the city of Rome was conducted by Susanna De Beer and can be found at https://digitalromanheritage.com/projects/

Pelagios

Pelagios provides online resources and a community for using open data methods to link and explore historical places

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Pelagios

Pelagios provides online resources and a community for using open data methods to link and explore historical places