Place names: we would be lost without them

According to the recent Indexing and Authority Records Survey (which I have been blogging about recently), archivists have a number of reasons why they think it is important to undertake place indexing:

  • to facilitate access
  • it is essential to resource discovery
  • users frequently request information about places
  • it is very important for local historians
  • it is good practice
  • to tackle inconsistencies in spelling and place name changes
  • to distinguish between places that have the same name
  • as a source of statistics (e.g. how many collections relate to individual countries)
  • it is an important part of the University’s diversity plan – many students are from other countries – shows that the collections are international
  • the records are arranged by place
  • it is a way to bring together disparate material in diverse collections
  • it helps identify and track boundary changes over time
  • it is used by national network sites (e.g. the Archives Hub)
The main reason not to index by place was given as a lack of staff resources, but some did also feel that it is not necessary. Other reasons were:
  • the search engine can pull out the place name
  • would need to index at item level for place entries to be useful and this is not practical to do
  • cataloguing and name indexing are the priorities
  • collections cover a small geographical area
  • collections are more thematic and name indexing works better than place indexing
  • not appropriate for the material (e.g. cartoons)
  • it has never been done
  • names are standardised to facilitate keyword searching
For those that do index by place, just as with names, the spread between collection-level, series-level, file and item-level indexing was pretty even, and the percentage of collections indexed by place varied enormously. The sources used for place names were varied, although most do seem to use the recognised gazetteers and guides. Others referred to the Library of Congress, local people and the documents themselves.
Many do use the NCA Rules, but there were some comments about the drawbacks of these -they do not recognise the three Yorkshire Ridings, they were created by a previous generation of archivists and are outdated.
We did ask whether any repositories use a co-ordinates based system, and only 3 responses were in the affirmative, though a couple stated that they were going to look into this.
Finally, when asked about reasons for the choice of rules or sources for place names, there were some varied responses:
  • being part of a set-up with other contributors
  • familiarity
  • ease
  • internationally accepted [standard], widely known and used
  • indexing was done before standards were introduced
  • it appears that no real thought has been given to this
  • standards were not precise enough when the decision was made
Place name indexing: is it necessary? One respondent said: ‘To put it bluntly we would be lost without it.’
Image: Flickr Creative Commons JMC Photos