Historical place names

April 29, 2011

Improving the way GeoNames handles historical names is a popular feature request. GeoNames is now beginning to address this question.

There are two new flags in the alternate name edit tool:
isHistoric for names of the past that are no longer used.
isColloquial for slang and colloquial names

At the recent Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers is was discussed how GeoNames could be extended to improve support for the timeline. Some attributes under consideration:
– fromPeriod (date, year, decade, century or period of usage)
– toPeriod
– source (book or map where the name is used), publication date of the source
– notes

The discussion for these fields is still ongoing and any feedback is welcome.
The two new flags isColloquial and isHistoric are not yet included in the daily extract as we will probably add some more attributes and don’t want to change the extract files too often. Each change in the extact files breaks the import scripts of users. We will extract the records with the two new flags in separate files as a temporary workaround till everything is stable.

20 Responses to “Historical place names”

  1. Yes, please! I regularly use maps in my genealogical research. For some areas, there are rich datasets with historical place names or boundary changes. A great example for US counties is the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries at the Newberry Library. However, other areas are a crapshoot. For example, many place names from Prussia that are now in Poland resemble the old German names. However, some do not, and finding them today can be difficult. The best I can do is Google the name and hope the results shed some light on it. If this were a regular feature of the GeoNames database, it would help genealogists and historians better.

    • marc Says:

      Please add old names you know of to the database, the database will then gradually grow and cover those names. It is also possible that some genealogists have already collected similar data that could be integrated.


  2. Lex Berman Says:

    hi Marc,

    Thanks for moving swiftly on this! I wrote a proposal for a testbed to followup on how to incorporate existing historical gazetteer datasets, which is now circulating. Hopefully you will be hearing from Humphrey Southall soonest!

  3. Leifuss Says:

    Really glad to see this happening. If it’s of any help, you are of course welcome to make use of the Pleiades+ mapping at:


    Which directly maps between GeoNames and Pleides places.


  4. Lex Berman Says:

    hi Leif,
    That’s awesome, the Identifier mapping that Sean posted at your site (16 May 2011) will be an excellent starting point for our proposed project to add historical placenames to Geonames.
    For anyone else out there with large corpus of historical placenames, please let me know if you would like to participate in this experiment!
    The more the merrier…

  5. Amanda Says:

    For historical research this will be fantastic, happy to support and contribute in some small way. Great idea and initiative

  6. Josh Hansen Says:

    Have you considered the historical place data in Dallan Quass’s Places (https://github.com/DallanQ/Places)? Can you accept data that uses a share-alike license?

    • marc Says:

      Share-Alike is a show stopper. GeoNames is licensed under the more open cc-by license it therefore cannot include restricted share alike data.

      • intriguingnw Says:

        Dont like to complicate the issue further but there is a JISC funded project looking at providing open linked data and I know they are specifically considering the links to geonames. Their source is 80 volumes of data, the project is in hand and runs from 2011 through to end of 2013, surely thats the type of initiative with the public sector providing in effect a handle to geonames that will ensure the volume of data gets adopted. Link to reference to the project, they are spending some £680k on this guys…so can we not find a way to link with that initiative…It is London University Kings College headed! http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/programmes/digitisation/econtent/econtent11_13/Bids/DEEP%20BID.pdf

      • Dallan Quass Says:

        @marc – I expected that you’d say that about share-alike when I noticed your license was cc-by. Unfortunately I can’t change it. I pulled data from Wikipedia initially so I had to adopt the same license they had.

        Now that I understand using the hierarchy file to build hierarchies, I’ll (slowly) work on incorporating geonames data into the WeRelate historical place database – being sure to give attribution of course. Or if you’d consider an alternate feed of geonames data that included historical data and was cc-by-sa, we could incorporate WeRelate places into Geonames.

        @intriguingnw – THANK YOU for sharing that link! It looks really interesting. I’ll follow up to see what we can do to work together.

      • marc Says:

        @Dallan – why don’t you consider an alternate feed with more open cc-by data, so that we could integrate it? I think it would be more useful than the other way round.

      • Dallan Quass Says:

        @marc – I can’t consider an alternate feed because of the nature of the way the CC licenses work. If you ask your contributors to licence their contributions under a particular license, you’re not allowed to turn around and publish their contributions under a less-restrictive license. Same goes for wikipedia — if you incorporate data from wikipedia into your content, you’re not allowed to publish that data under a less-restrictive license.

  7. Lex Berman Says:

    thanks Josh! The Places and Place_words files from Dallan’s github are very clean and straightforward. We will check them out in comparison with the latest version of our name-matching project, which will be reported on at the AAG meeting in NYC on Feb 25th:
    And we will post links to our papers soon!
    *hi to Marc!*

  8. Dallan Quass Says:

    I’m the developer of WeRelate.org. I made a comment here:


    about the possibility of working with Geonames on historic places. I wonder if you know what you’re getting into though. Dealing with historic places adds a whole new dimension to the complexity of place data. You need to be able to model places changing their jurisdictional hierarchies over time. Entering historical place data involves quite a bit more research by your volunteers than modern place data. Any thoughts?

    • Lex Berman Says:

      Hi Dallan,

      If only you’d warned me 12 years ago! : )

      Meanwhile, I hope some of my papers on the subject of modeling the change of jurisdictional hierarchies over time might have helped a little. I’ve got one called “Boundaries or Networks” which covers some of it… But more details are in the data model papers, etc.

      Will you be at AAG? Please join us at NYPL!

      • Dallan Quass Says:

        I’m not planning to go to AAG, though I’d love to work with you if you and your volunteers want to work on historical place data.

        In the meantime, how can I access the intermediate subdivisions data? It appears that GB.zip that I downloaded for example doesn’t include the county for a PPL is in. What am I missing? The lack of subdivision information is why I didn’t incorporate Geonames data into the WeRelate places database originally. It would be great to incorporate it now.

  9. Lex Berman Says:

    Oh, volunteers… that would be sweet… but it’s just me, in my underground garret on Cambridge Street.

    I’m just a happy user of GeoNames, so not the expert, but I think you need to download the hierarchy.zip and iterate through it to generate your canonical “addresses” with the administrative hierarchy. For example, column A value 6252001 (USA) has all the states as children in the B column, like 6254926 (Massachusetts), then if you look up 6254926 in column A, you’ll find the children of MA, like 4929772 (Barnstable County). Under the “data dump” section, see the readme.txt and download section. http://www.geonames.org/export/
    PS. I would like to collaborate with you if you have info on Asian placenames, that would be great!

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