Or so it may seem.
When it comes down to it, there is a difference between talking about location and placing information on a map. The latter requires a level of specificity that can be confounding to a historian. What do we mean? Well, for example, can the richness and variability of an urban space like Moscow really be reduced to a set of coordinates? Or, what happens when Google cannot provide the location of a village 50 kilometers south - or was it southeast? - of Ekaterinoslav that you are (mostly) sure existed in the 1820s?
When it comes to historical GIS, geolocation is both an art and a science. It involves scandalous amounts of research, triangulating with old maps, tapping NASA-powered gazetteers, and making peace with varying degrees of uncertainty and inaccuracy. It involves asking oneself, "how can I be sure that where mattered, when I don't even know exactly where where was?" Most importantly, it forces us to think carefully about how we conceptualize and define place, and how the actors whose lives and deeds and ideas fascinate us conceptualized and defined place.
Answering the "Where?" question tends to involve answering one or more of the following questions. (For starters.)
- Am I dealing with places that exist now? If so, are there substantive differences between the current and historical iterations of these places? (Cities grow, for example, river courses shift over time, and political boundaries are constantly redrawn.) Can I use existing gazetteers (such as GeoNames and Nominatum and Google) to define their coordinates or do I have to build the spatial data by hand, so to speak?
- Am I dealing with places that no longer exist? To put it slightly differently, am I dealing with places that those mind-boggling digital gazetteers know nothing about? If so, is this because these places now have different names? Or because they have fallen into ruin? Either way, geocoding lost places requires some creative thinking, some good old fashioned sleuthing, and a healthy dose of documentation.
- Am I dealing with places that Google can't find but that are attested on historical maps? If so, digitizing and georeferencing the maps might be the best way to establish location.