Updates from the Urban Gazetteers WG
The Urban Gazetteer Working Group met in Rome on the 25th of June, in the beautiful framework of the Royal Dutch Institute in Villa Borghese. The attendees of the working group came from different backgrounds: some were more interested in the process of building a city gazetteer, and others were more interested in how such resource could be applied to enhance digital archives and semantic annotation of historical sources. But, of course, there were various degrees of overlap between the two approaches. The full team was made of: Jeffrey Becker (New York), Johan Åhlfeldt (Lund), Martin Raspe (Biblioteca Hertziana), Claudia Bolgia and Maurizio Campanelli (Linking Evidence), Timo Strauch (Census) and ourselves, Susanna de Beer, Janelle Jenstad and Valeria Vitale
The workshop had three main streams of discussion:
* the nature and structure of urban gazetteers;
* the application of urban gazetteers, their value, and how to optimise them according to the users’ needs;
* how to produce a set of guidelines and suggestions that would prove useful from both a practical and a conceptual point of view.
During the entire discussion, we tried to keep the final goal of the guidelines in mind, and focus our efforts in that direction. We agreed that such document shouldn’t be prescriptive, but rather a useful reference to collect and share experience and advice on the matter of researching, creating and using urban gazetteers. Instead of offering answers to what we believe are the most recurring issues in dealing with urban gazetteers, we decided to identify and list some of those questions, and to offer alternative approaches to them, highlighting pros and cons of each one.
Ideally, the guidelines will be a useful reference for both experts and beginners in the spatial humanities field, but will probably be especially valuable for the latter, and for researchers at the very initial stage of their work, when they start designing the backbone of a new urban gazetteer.
During the day-long meeting, we tried to define the scope of a urban gazetteer and how it differs (and if!) from a more traditional gazetteer that deals with settlement level. From a technological point of view, a urban gazetteer, in the end, seems to pose pretty much the same challenges of any other gazetteer, but, of course, a room full of people passionate about cities (each in their in own way!) strenuously defended the peculiar conceptual issues that modelling data about buildings and monuments poses. Our location in the city of Rome inspired many of our examples, the Italian capital having one of the most complex architectural biographies, with layers and layers of history piling on top of each other, and blending to produce a unique mix. To give you a taste of this complexity, a quite common issue, for example, is the case of spolia. How to model and represent in a gazetteer the relationship between completely different buildings that have been constructed using the same material? In other words, when something stops being an object and becomes a place? If it becomes a place afterall…
Another topic that was thoroughly discussed was the very nature of urban gazetteers and how they should be shaped in order to meet the needs of different users. Should they be a very lightweight tool, basically just offer a URI in order to link external resources that share a connection to the place, or should gazetteers, themselves an output of historical and art-historical research, also store information about the buildings such as location, variant names, chronology of restorations and relationship with other elements in the gazetteer? As for all the other questions that were raised during the workshop, we won’t pretend to have a definitive answer, but will suggest possible ones, and invite everyone to join the debate.
Last, we discussed the importance of documentation, and the practice of sharing knowledge and experience, all things that were at the very core meaning of the entire workshop. Thus, as an appendix to the guidelines, we will also try to gather information about available and free digital tools and resources related to urban gazetteers, and make them available to the users that want to start their work getting an idea of what is out there. Such list, as well as the guidelines themselves, will remain always open to implementation, and, ideally, up to date.
Our next step is making a prose version of our workshop notes, and sharing them with all participants to add further thoughts, but also with other members of the community that have expressed an interest in being part of this conversation. Watch this space for our next update!