New publication: On Historical Gazetteers

This article has just been published:

Humphrey Southall, Ruth Mostern and Merrick Lex Berman, “On historical gazetteers”, International Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing, Vol. 5 (2011), pages 127-145.

It can be accessed online here, so long as you can log-in via Shibboleth, or just pay:

It is not about the Great Britain Historical GIS or the web site A Vision of Britain through Time, and you can tell this from my co-authors: Ruth Mostern teaches history at the University of California Merced, and was long involved with the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative; Lex Berman is the project manager for the China Historical GIS based with the Center for Geographic Analysis at Harvard University. They know way more than I do about China, which is reflected in many of the examples.

However, the article uses even more examples from Britain, and does help explain some of the distinctive features of our approach. In particular, it argues that gazetteers can be about three fundamentally different kinds of thing:

  • Geographical features, defined by existing in the landscape: you can touch them, and photograph them from planes. That makes GIS people and national mapping agencies comfortable with them.
  • Administrative units, defined basically in law: you cannot touch them, they don’t show up in aerial surveys, and the general public often have fairly hazy ideas even about modern ones.
  • Places, which are defined entirely through people talking and writing about them. Administrative units are usually named after places, but have well defined boundaries which in some cases, such as most of our pre-1974 Rural Districts, do not even contain the places they are named after.

Most of the existing literature on gazetteers is by GIS people and national mapping agencies, so focused on geographical features and how to classify them, but we argue that historians need a different approach more concerned with administrative units and places, with the diversity of names associated with particular units or places, and obviously with written sources rather than ground or aerial survey.

There are not many gazetteers clearly focused on units and places rather than features, or very clearly distinguishing between units and places, but of course that is exactly what the gazetteer side of A Vision of Britain through Time does. The article justifies our approach rather than describing our system, but a series of articles in Historical Methods is doing the latter. The first article, on how we hold statistical data, appeared this summer (vol. 44, pp. 149-159) and was announced on this blog. The second, on our handling of administrative units, has just been delivered to the journal and should appear in January. The third will be about our places, and how we define them by linking together references in historical gazetteers, travel writing, and associated administrative units.

About Humphrey Southall

Director, Great Britain Historical GIS; Reader in Geography, University of Portsmouth
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