Urban Gazetteers Working Group
Digital Gazetteers for Cities
Digital gazetteers have become an established resource and the backbone of many digital humanities projects. They enable, among other things, georeferencing of places in historical and contemporary documents, linkage of resources that share geographical references, and visualisation of pattern and trends from spatial perspectives. Currently, the majority of digital gazetteers tend to represent geographical information using “settlement” or “city” as their average level of granularity for the entities represented. Although this approach has proven successful in a large number of applications, when looking at place-references connected to large settlements with a rich cultural heritage, many researchers have started feeling the limitations of the available tools. For example, in the case of Rome or Athens, stating that an object was found in (or has any other kind of relationship with) the city, is often too generic to be truly informative. Similar issues are met by researchers working with places that cover smaller areas but whose monuments have been thoroughly investigated, like Venice or Pompeii.
This working group aims to create, collaboratively, a set of common guidelines for the development of new gazetteers that model single monuments and/or locations within cities as places, and assign them individual URIs. The availability of building-specific URIs will, potentially, facilitate more refined aggregations of digital documents, including museum records, descriptions in words and images of the city’s monuments, and bibliographical citations. In facts, there is already a wealth of digital projects that have catalogued, annotated and made available resources related to cities’ cultural heritage. The list for Rome only would already be few pages long. However, the lack of a standard reference for single monuments and buildings makes it very difficult for the various projects to be connected, and for the users to easily aggregate all the available information around an historical building.
Technical and conceptual challenges
Beside their practical application and their usefulness in bringing together digital resources, urban gazetteers also open up the debate to stimulating questions about the nature of buildings as places, such as the relationship between material presence and use, and how such relationship evolves through time. The working group aims to identify and address issues that are specific to urban gazetteers, and the nature of historical buildings like, for example:
- How to represent the different strata of a building in different periods of time as a hierarchical structure of overlapping geometries,
- How to represent imaginary locations that have either unknown or non-existing coordinates but are, nonetheless, part of the history and perception of the city,
- How to list consistently the different ways in which a building has been named and identified in different historical moments or by different communities.
Therefore, we envision urban gazetteers not only as useful tools to help establish, represent and query relationships between pieces of cultural heritage as well as the discourse around them, but also as a tool to research, model, preserve and compare our knowledge about historical buildings.
We anticipate that city gazetteers will soon become an indispensable resource in the study and conservation of cultural heritage. We also believe that this is the perfect moment to lay, collaboratively, the foundation for a functional approach to urban gazetteers that considers not only the usefulness of each single gazetteer but also sees them in a wider Linked Open Data scenario. This working group wants to bring together researchers that have already done some pioneer work in this field and researchers that are just in the process of setting up their gazetteers, to discuss common guidelines that will facilitate the dialogue between the different city gazetteers.
We believe that Pelagios is the most appropriate venue to promote such collaborative approach and to support the creation of practical and methodological guidelines for the development of historical urban gazetteers, considering the strong relationship it has been building with members of the LOD community.
Relying on standard formats and on guidelines for the information modelling would have the immediate benefit of making the entries in the gazetteers more consistent and even cross searchable (in the case of objects that have relationships with more than one building such as, for example, a painting that used to belong to a collection and was then moved to another location). It will also contribute to make such information more longeve and easier to preserve. These guidelines will prove helpful not only for researchers that are in the process of developing urban gazetteers now, but will also be a valuable reference for all the future projects that involve building-specific URIs. In this perspective, the output of this WG can also encourage (and contribute to) the creation of a bundle of accessible and free resources to enable non-expert users to build their own urban gazetteer, following from the very start a set of community-developed guidelines.
Workshop in Rome
In only two weeks from now, on June 25th, we will have a workshop hosted by the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome. We are very happy that so many experts in this field have accepted our invitation to join the workshop, and we are looking forward very much to getting started!
We will keep the Pelagios community updated about the results of the workshop in a second blog!
Susanna de Beer