From a historical GIS to an on-line administrative gazetteer of Great Britain

Presentation at the NKOS Workshop, JCDL 2002, on Digital gazetteers: integration into distributed digital library services, July 18, 2002

Gudrun Richardson and Humphrey Southall, Great Britain Historical GIS Project/University of Portsmouth and

The Great Britain Historical Geographic Information System (GBHGIS) contains a detailed record of changing administrative boundaries over the last two centuries, together with a mass of information about the various units including very extensive data from historical censuses back to 1801, all held in a loosely linked ArcInfo GIS and Oracle database. This presentation will outline how we are using this material to create a new on-line system which can meet many needs including gazetteer searches.

We are now funded by the UK National Lottery to create a web site supporting the needs of 'lifelong learners', ranging from school children to post-graduate researchers. The site must be flexible enough to support quick identification of a specific place whilst also providing more detailed information on its administrative history. It must also provide collocation of the statistical data relating to a single unit over time, regardless of changes to the unit's position within a frequently changing administrative structure. To make our census holdings accessible to users unfamiliar with Britain's complex and constantly changing administrative geography, we must develop a controlled vocabulary focussing on local government administration in England, Wales and Scotland. The data pose many problems:

  • changes to place names
  • variant spellings authenticated by the multiple sources from which the database is built
  • changes to administrative geography over the period
  • repositioning of extant units between administrative units
  • the need to combine textual place name information with geographic locators.

Our funding requires us to create both an accessible database of historical census data and an on-line gazetteer and place-name authority which will be used by archivists and librarians to improve access to their own holdings. However, these will not be two distinct systems but a single data structure which can present itself in various ways. While most current gazetteer projects are based on converting digital data gathered for other reasons into 'gazetteer content' via off-line conversion, the challenge for us is to do this conversion, and specifically the generation of material meeting the ADL Gazetteer Content Standard, on the fly, in response to user requests.