Progress and Next Steps, Jan. 2018

The World-Historical Gazetteer project (WHG) has been under way for six months, and we’d like to let people know what progress we have made and our immediate next steps.


  • We digitized the index of “Atlas of World History,” a 1999 Dorling-Kinderley volume edited by historian Jeremy Black. This has given us approximately 10,000 places to seed our “spine” gazetteer, including cultural places like settlements, states, regions, peoples, and archaeological sites, and natural features like rivers and mountain ranges. Each entry is associated with one or more of the atlas’s 450 maps, each of which has a temporal coverage.
Georeferenced places from Black Index and societies from D-Place
Georeferenced places from Black atlas index (red) and societies from D-Place (green)
  • We have aligned approximately 70% of places in the atlas index with records in GeoNames and/or DBpedia so far, giving us geometry, additional name variants, and Wikipedia abstract text. In the near future we will also align records with the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names. A significant proportion of unmatched entries simply aren’t in existing gazetteers — but will be in ours!
  • We have gathered several data sets to augment the spine with additional cultural and natural features that will allow us to contextualize place records in our interfaces in some novel ways:

Societies (peoples) and related language regions (D-Place)
Rivers and lakes (Natural Earth)
Watersheds (World Resources Institute)
Mountain ranges (Natural Earth)
Terrestrial ecoregions (biomes; World Wildlife Federation)
Major ocean currents (NOAA)

  • In September, we held a kickoff meeting in Pittsburgh. Participants included members of our four data partner teams, several experts from the historical Linked Open Data “ecosystem,” and members of the Pitt and Carnegie Mellon digital humanities and library communities. We received a lot of valuable input, much of which we have compiled into a set of 70 “user stories.” These will inform design of our data models, graphical interfaces and API.
  • Our initial mapping of cultural features indicated that, as expected, some regions are somewhat under-represented. We are identifying a few significant historical print gazetteers and maps, digitization of which can help rectify the problem, and facilitating the work to extract and publish that data. The first such project will help fill a gap for 17-18c Latin America – the 1786 “Diccionario geográfico-histórico de las Indias Occidentales ó América,” and its 1812 English translation.
  • We also have worked to position our project in the the ecosystem referred to earlier. Over the past year, Technical Director Karl Grossner served as co-coordinator of the Linked Pasts Working Group of Pelagios Commons, which recently published a white paper – now open for comment as a shared document – “From Linking Places to a Linked Pasts Network.” We view WHG as joining Pelagios’ Peripleo system as a place-centered Linked Pasts Network Hub; more about that framing effort in due course.
  • We have begun experimental integration of the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN) into the WHG system. This extraordinary resource (~2.5 million geo-referenced places; ~4 million place names) has, like most existing gazetteers, limited temporal information. We’d like to facilitate temporal annotations to all indexed place records, as we move towards a truly historical gazetteer system.

Next steps

Following a mid-January 2018 system design charrette, database and software development begins in earnest. Early design plans will be published for comment.

Data development will continue throughout the duration of the project, and discussions with several prospective data partners are ongoing. Our goal is supporting communities of researchers specializing in particular regions and periods, and guiding them to publishing place data we can incorporate in our “union index.” The initial focus is on Colonial Era Latin America and West Africa, Maritime Southeast Asia, and Early Modern Europe, but we welcome inquiries concerning any region/period combination.