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The Historical Gazetteer of England's Place-Names

Place-names are not static. They change and evolve over time, in response to the development of language, wars and conquests, shifting administrative boundaries, or simply the vagaries of spelling in the days before dictionaries and atlases. They have complex etymologies derived from different languages, and they mean different things to different communities. Therefore, historical documents and archives, ephemera and sources, contain different spellings (forms) of place-names, depending on their date and context. However - and despite the fact that we now take for granted the ability to search geographic data using web services such as Google Maps and GeoNames.org - there is no gazetteer documenting these historic name forms. Therefore, there is no means of linking or cross-searching the geographic references they contain. In summary, a search using a modern place-name will not currently return results for that name in all its many variant forms. This has resulted in a major underutilisation of electronic resources.

Digitisation (undertaken by the Centre for Data Digitisation and Analysis), however, offers a solution. In England, the historical developments of place-names over time have been systematically surveyed since 1922 by the specialists of the English Place-name Society (EPNS). Examining an extensive range of documentary sources in local and national archives, and gathering the knowledge of local communities and experts, the EPNS has built up an 86-volume county by county survey of England's place-names - detailing over four million variant forms, from classical sources, through the Anglo-Saxon period and into medieval England and beyond to the modern period. JISC's Digital Exposure of English Place-names (DEEP) project will digitise all these forms, and make them available as structured data. The corpus will be comprise a gazetteer within JISC's Unlock service, meaning that researchers will be able to cross-query the dataset, and use it to search their own digital documents and databases for any historic place-name form. The gazetteer data will also be made available in structured XML, meaning that it will be possible to experiment with methods of data mining and visualisation that are not possible with the paper volumes. In addition to the digitisation, a network of experts will be convened to correct and enhance the dataset.

The completed resource will provide a key piece of electronic infrastructure for the discovery, clustering, use and analysis of e-content referenced by place. It will also be an important resource for scholars of place-names, and scholars in cognate disciplines such history, linguistics, archaeology, and historical geography.

DEEP has had a long gestation period, and as such it is a logical extension of existing work. Its context is significant existing investment which JISC has made in various forms of gazetteers and geospatial web services such as GeoCrosswalk, GeoDigRef, and Unlock. Principally, it grew from the Connecting Historical Authorities with Linked data, Contexts and Entities (CHALICE), funded in 2010 under JISC's Information Environment Programme, and led by EDINA. In this exemplar project, the current project team carried out a full pilot demonstrator. This exemplar digitised the place-names of Cheshire, and a sample of those of Shropshire, and extracted place-name, attestation and chronological data from them using the Edinburgh geoparser, and generated a gazetteer of historic place-names to link documents and authority files in Linked Data form. This proved the concept that is being rolled out under DEEP but, as an exemplar was constrained by limitations on time and resources. As a result, methodological challenges have been resolved and the team has a proven track record of working together.