Digital gazetteer standards for history and culture

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

Ruth Mostern, Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative, University of California, Berkeley

Human activity in time and place is very complex. Places names alter when political regimes change (e.g. from Belgian Congo, to Zaire, to Congo). When regimes or languages coexist, names do as well (e.g. Beijing and Beiping, Tibet and Xizang). Boundaries change over time as cities expand or empires are extinguished, and sometimes places literally move from one location to the other, but retain all of their other characteristics. Some kinds of places have very clear spatial footprints; others (e.g. the Silk Road) are extremely abstract. In addition to the need to accommodate such characteristics of places and their attributes, the work of creating a historical gazetteer is made more complex by the fragmentary nature of the source base for historical places, and the ambiguities and elisions in the sources that exist. Feature type searching for distributed gazetteers, moreover, requires agreement on a thesaurus that can, at a generic level, accommodate all possible ways of designating places. This talk discusses the attempts of the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initative to adapt gazetteer standards and develop practices adequate for a global, multilingual community of historians and humanities scholars.