The Challenge of Developing Geodata-Based Gazetteer Research Technologies and Methods

Project Leader: PD Dr. Christian Lotz, Barbara Fichtl M.A.
Project Team: Prof. Dr. Francis Harvey, Dipl.-Geogr. Eric Losang (Leibniz-Institut für Länderkunde), Prof. Dr. Vadim Oswalt (Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen), Dipl.-Ing. Marc Friede (Herder-Institut)
Project Coordination: Dariusz Gierczak M.A.
Project Staff: Dipl.-Inf. Bent Ahrens, Grigori Chlesberg M.A., Ihor Doroshenko B.A.
Funding: Senatsausschuss Wettbewerb (SAW) der Leibniz-Gemeinschaft
Duration: 05/2019 – 12/2023

Gazetteer-Research Projektbild
Gazetteer-Research Projektbild

In recent years, various disciplines have been contributing data in an increasing amount related to place names through the creation of multiple digital gazetteers. The increased number of gazetteers reflects the high demand for this structured data in various disciplines, such as history, geography, archaeology, climate change research etc. However, differences in these new data sources, including metadata, lead to severe challenges for their scientific usage.

The Herder Institute (HI), the Institute for Regional Geography (IfL) and the Justus Liebig University Giessen (JLU) take up this challenge. They will not set up a new gazetteer. Instead, the project team aims to analyse historical case studies that show how regimes of geographical knowledge changed between the 18th and 21st century; and the team will create a web application that allows access to multiple online gazetteers for the comparison of their contents and metadata. Using known metadata and data integration architectures, they develop critical methodologies and a research network with infrastructure for its sustainability to support research involving or using place names.

Gazetteers and geographical names represent arrangements of power and knowledge, i.e. geographical discourses. By creating gazetteers and defining place names, scientific and state authorities determine perspectives on the world, a continent or a region. The analysis of gazetteers and their varying scope and content from the 18th to the 21st century is an example par excellence to investigate how arrangements of power and knowledge have changed since the early modern period and how they change right now when entering the digital era. Like in a magnifying glass, the study of gazetteers shows mechanisms and consequences of digitization processes that apply to various other fields including the transformation from analogue to digital encyclopaedias and how they define the “state of the art” of specialist knowledge; the change of economic statistics and how they structure international trade and dependence; the development of environmental monitoring and how it defines borders and frontiers of “ecological restoration”, and more.

The importance of gazetteer research for scientific communities and the wider public is obvious: In the public sphere, in particular in Eastern Europe during the recent decade, place names have (again) become an issue in heated debates about local, regional and national identities. It is just now, in 2018/19, that, for example, Polish government offices attempt to change places and place names of memorial sites, streets or town boroughs devoted to the Polish Peoples Republic or to Soviet soldiers who died during the Second World War. In various countries in the East and West, many issues can be found that require profound knowledge to calm emotional discussions.

In scientific communities, changing place names form a severe obstacle, not only to projects in history and memory studies but also in other disciplines: Human geography must cope with migration statistics providing various names for places of origin and destination, even within the EU. Climate change research faces fascinating temperature data ranging back as far as the 17th century, but with mind-boggling varieties of place names. The same applies to biodiversity research: a consortium such as the Biodiversity Heritage Library comprises about 200,000 volumes from the 16th to the 20th century online, but it remains a severe challenge to handle the given historical place names to track down a particular species.

The HI, IfL and JLU set out to tackle a conceptual and practical challenge.

On a conceptual level, the project aims:

  • To analyse how various state and scientific actors in East Central Europe created and revised geographical discourses.
  • To focus on experts who were active in their own national contexts, as well as within international organisations.
  • To explore innovations such as standardized map production since the 18th century or computer technology since the 1970s and their impact on gazetteers. In doing so, the project analyses the extent to which changes of geographical discourses were driven by technical as well as political and economic factors.
  • To use the example of the gazetteer analysis to give insight into general features of how power-knowledge arrangements changed in various scientific fields from the early modern period to the digital era.

On a practical level, the project examines the breadth and depth of digital gazetteers regarding metadata structure, scope, content, and practical use in research projects. Deriving a web application based on an access point concept with a workspace for comparisons positions the methodological approach for the systematic comparison of different gazetteers. Opening the resulting application to the public supports ongoing studies and comparisons by the scientific community and the public of different gazetteers’ representations.