World Historical Gazetteer creates new historical knowledge

Does the Center for Research Computing only work with scientists who need lots of computing power?

Actually not. CRC collaborates with researchers in fields running the gamut of the university, and many researchers who find value in CRC need relatively modest amounts of computing power. Expertise, as much as powerful hardware, is the indispensable CRC resource.

Ruth Mostern is one of those researchers. Mostern, associate professor of history and director of Pitt’s World History Center, spearheads an ambitious set of digital projects supported by CRC, prominent among which is the World Historical Gazetteer (WHG), set to debut this spring.

“The gazetteer is a two-way platform for scholarly communication,” explains Mostern. “It will improve people’s own research while researchers also contribute to a growing shared resource.”

Mostern says CRC is invaluable to humanities and social science researchers. “CRC is essential in my life. Historians don’t have large grants and labs. Fewer people in the social sciences and humanities have technical computing experience,
and we don’t have a budget for staff and systems.
The Cloud is expensive. It is hard to find a place for
social scientists and humanists to meet the need
for computing. I’m incredibly grateful for CRC.”


                                     The WHG record for Instanbul, Turkey, with earlier names reflecting 2,000 years of historical changes. 

Mostern describes the WHG as a research resource that combines spatial and temporal history. It is simple on the face of it – a digital atlas that is searchable by names of places and natural features covering several thousand years of recorded history. The data cascades in multiple layers from diverse sources in different formats. The gazetteer links to outside data sources, relates links to one another, and links people and events associated with places. Researchers can upload datasets of place records drawn from historical sources and share data while augmenting their own data and discovering other work being done concerning their own places of interest.

A search for a place name in the WHG produces a list identified as inhabited places, natural features and other categories, and a map displaying locations. Gazetteer entries are particularly interesting for cities that have been known over history by different names in different languages, such as Jerusalem, which is identified by several different names, written in Arabic, Hebrew and Latin characters. Istanbul, Turkey, includes many forms of its name, from Byzantium to Constantinople to modern Istanbul (including the Old Norse “Mikligard” assigned by Viking raiders).

Entries include links to outside databases and other records within the WHG. A bar graph above  the map displays a timeline of every recorded reference to the place in the database. In some cases the graph tracks with historic events – for instance, the record for Bosnia displays a dense plateau of references in the years surrounding the First World War, the outbreak of which was in reaction to events in that region. References dwindle, then spike in the 1990s, when Bosnia was a battleground in the civil wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia.

CRC consultant and research associate professor Kim Wong collaborates with World History Center on the WHG and other projects. ““CRC subsidizes humanities research in terms of free resources that take up a fraction of the computing space that other users need. The World History Center does not need high-performance computing. They need a host. They need infrastructure and expertise installing software.”

“We’re setting a precedent – if a humanities project needs certain capabilities, we can work with you. Humanities researchers might be able to do things with digital resources that they had not thought possible. We help those communities apply digital perspectives to traditional humanities. It’s the core of CRC’s mission – helping broaden the point of view of research.”

Karl Grossner is the technical director of the WHG project.

“The genre of a gazetteer is not new – the Pleiades project covering the ancient Mediterranean is probably the best known. But we want to extend the concept to a global gazetteer covering a long time frame, that can be used globally. The project is ambitious that way. Right now, we have a queue of 20 contributors, and more potential data on the way.” The initial stage of the WHG project is funded by a three-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The World History Center  is looking for funding sources to extend the lifespan of the gazetteer project.

Grossner helps contributing researchers prepare  convert data sets of atlases and gazetteers, including collections covering 18th century Latin America, Old World trade routes, European settlement and administrative boundaries, and the medieval Islamic world. WHG is forming an editorial board to curate the quality of data as academic and non-academic collaborators seek to contribute data including family histories and genealogies, as well as student research.

“WHG needs a home and needs institutional support,” says Grossner. “It is awesome that CRC has provided a home. Most digital humanities projects are in the same situation of needing technical expertise and hosting resources. We are happy to be guinea pigs for CRC. The WHG project may be small by CRC standards, but it is quite large and ambitious by digital humanities standards.”

Mostern describes the WHG project as impossible without the support of CRC. “No other place on campus could fulfill our need. We only use a small amount of computing at CRC, but with that computing we can collaborate in creating new historical knowledge. Without CRC our platform wouldn’t exist.”

Friday, September 4, 2020