Space and Time

Working Group 1



Digital technology provides unprecedented opportunities for understanding the spatial and temporal dimensions of exchanges of learned correspondence, of the movements of correspondents themselves, and of the discussions taking place within the letters they exchange. The most basic precondition for realizing this potential is the development of standards for presenting spatial and temporal information in catalogue records (II) and in letter texts themselves (III). This will facilitate the development of techniques for analysing large collections of epistolary, prosopographical, and textual data and metadata (IV) and visualizing the results (V), potentially in one or more of pilot projects (VI). At the heart of WG 1 will be a dialogue between historians, geographers, and IT experts aimed at identifying ways in which fresh scholarly questions (I) can be answered through the application of geographical information systems (GIS), network analysis (in partnership with WG 2), natural language processing (in partnership with WG 3), and visualization strategies (in partnership with WG 6).


WG 1 is led by Ian Gregory, Professor of Digital Humanities in the Department of History at Lancaster University. A geographer by training specializing in the application of geographical information systems to humanistic materials, he holds a Starting Researcher Grant from the European Research Council in support of a project entitled ‘Spatial Humanities: Texts, GIS, Places’.



I. Research questions and cognate projects

  1. Collect and study a gallery of projects applying digital technology to mapping and analysing aspects of ‘intellectual geography’.
  2. Use this gallery to help scholars, editors, and others identify the questions they want digital technologies to help them answer. This process is fundamental if this WG is to make a real difference to the study of early modern Europe, and will therefore be iterated at appropriate stages during the Action.
  3. Assemble and prioritize a list of functionality and applications for dealing with data on the republic of letters.

II. Metadata standards and authorities

  1. Determine the structure of spatial and temporal metadata within catalogue records.
  2. Choose existing gazetteers as baseline authorities (e.g. Geonames, Getty Thesaurus of Geographical Names, Orbis Latinus).
  3. Develop means of creating new sub-gazetteers for extending, enhancing, and correcting existing gazetteers. Current gazetteers are very general and not very well adapted to multi-lingual historical data, let alone the needs to specific corpora. Sub-gazetteers that enhance these for specific countries or collections may be an appropriate solution.
  4. Explore options for the reciprocal exchange of metadata with gazetteers selected in stage 5. The collaboration of the Electronic Enlightenment with the Getty Research Institute provides a valuable precedent.
  5. Investigate semi-automated matching of name variants and geographic coordinates. Cultures of Knowledge plans to pilot such semi-automated matching from April 2015 onward.

III. Data and metadata within text corpora

  1. Determine how spatial and temporal metadata should be encoded within texts.
  2. Devise automated techniques for identifying and encoding place-names and temporal references within textual corpora, building on the work of the Spatial Humanities
  3. Devise means of semi-automating (point 8) the enrichment of sub-gazetteers (point 6) with fresh nomenclature extracted from texts.

IV. Queries

  1. Building on the questions generated in point 2, explore methods of conducting ‘distant’ analyses of large volumes of structured catalogue metadata. As well as mapping the correspondence of individuals, this might involve mapping all of the places from or to which letters were sent from a given location during a specific interval, or (to take a more complex example) graphing the times at which letters in a given collection are sent from or near a given place.
  2. Investigate queries combining spatio-temporal catalogue metadata with geographical references identified within letters texts (in the manner indicated in item 10). For instance, ‘How does the distribution of places mentioned in a correspondence change over time?’
  3. Investigate the potential for combining geo-spatial data with thematic data generated by topic modelling in WG 3 — for instance, the way in which the discussion of specific themes travelled across Europe via learned correspondence.

V. Mapping and other visualization options

  1. Building on the gallery assembled at stage 1, consider (in partnership with WG 6) the means of visualizing geo-spatial data, whether cartographically or otherwise. The methods, conventions, and technologies already developed in historical geography must be explored to the full in order to build on best practice.
  2. Consider the range of background information to be provided on map underlays to aid the analysis of spatial and spatio-temporal data and metadata: physical characteristics (topography, rivers), urbanization, transport links (roads, canals), commercial networks, territorial boundaries, confessional geography, patterns of academic mobility, military movements, and dynastic or diplomatic networks. How might such information be coded and represented so that users can toggle through visualization options in an interactive and user-friendly manner?
  3. Address the problem of visualizing uncertainty and gaps in data, drawing in particular on the experience of Stanford’s Humanities+Design.
  4. Explore (in partnership with WG 6) the graphic and technical options for visualizing temporal sequences within structured data, including but not restricted to interactive presentations and animation.

VI. Pilot Projects

  1. Conduct one or more pilot projects on the above based on suitable (sub) corpora, illustrating potential for larger follow-up projects.