Sunday, October 2, 2011

Tools I Use Every Day: GNIS Database & Others

Every day as I work on Cyndi's List I have to determine how to categorize the links I'm adding to the database. I cross-reference the links in as many categories as are appropriate for the topic of the web site. In almost every case I will have to determine a geographic location for a link. In some cases this is easy to do. A good webmaster will clearly identify the location on the web site. For example, a web site for a cemetery should supply the name of the cemetery plus the city, county, state/province, and country in which that cemetery is located. To be very comprehensive the GPS coordinates might also be included, particularly for those country cemeteries that are out in the middle of a cow pasture. More often than not I end up with links that give partial location information. And many times I get links with no location supplied at all. This makes for a challenge when it comes to indexing the site. This can be just as frustrating for the researcher as it is for me.

To aid me in determining a location within the United States I use the GNIS database interface supplied by the Yale Peabody Museum. GNIS is the Geographic Names Information System from the U.S. Geological Survey. You can also use their search interface here: GNIS Feature Search. I prefer the simplicity of the Yale Peabody interface, so it is what I will use in examples here.

Today I had to categorize a link for "Cemetery Index, St. Mary's, Maryland." That is all the information I had from the title and the description given. So, I first indexed it under my Cemeteries category. I want to also index the link in the proper location under United States - Maryland. Using the Yale Peabody GNIS, I entered "St. Mary's" and chose Maryland and ANY FEATURE from the menus.

The results returned schools, a hospital and a stream, but didn't supply any type of cemetery:

I assume the lack of results I received might be because the query I was using was for "St. Mary's," which includes two items that the database might interpret different than I do: the abbreviation of St. instead of Saint, and the possessive apostrophe in Mary's. To simplify my query I did a search on only the word "Mary" taking out any St./Saint issue, and removing the possesive apostrophe. In the feature menu I also chose "cemetery" to help narrow down my search results.

This time I had more success. The search resulted in six possible Saint Marys Cemetery hits. You'll notice that Saint is spelled out in the database and the apostrophe isn't there either. Keep this in mind for searches you do in the future, in this database and in others you find online.

Now I have a new problem. Which of these six cemeteries, shown to be located in five different counties, is the correct location for my link? The only way to know for sure is for me to contact the web site owner and ask them. Most of the time using the GNIS database gets me the answer without having to go this one step further.

The GNIS database contains several geographical features that you may need to use when doing a search for your family members. You might know about a specific place or feature that existed near your ancestor's home, so use this database to search for any of the following:  airport, arch, area, arroyo, bar, basin, bay, beach, bench, bend, bridge, building, canal, cape, cemetery, channel, church, cliff, crater, crossing, dam, falls, flat, forest, gap, geyser, glacier, gut, harbor, hospital, island, isthmus, lake, lava, levee, locale, mine, oilfield, other, park, pillar, plain, ppl*, range, rapids, reserve, reservoir, ridge, school, sea, slope, spring, stream, summit, swamp, tower, trail, tunnel, valley, well, woods. (*ppl stands for "populated place," such as a city, town, etc.)

The search results shown in the examples above show you six columns: 1) the name of the feature, 2) the type of feature, 3) the current county in which the feature exists, 4) latitude, 5) longitude, and 6) the name of the topographical map on which the feature can be found. 

For the United Kingdom, I use: Gazetteer of British Place Names

For more help there is a Maps & Geography sub-category under every location category on Cyndi's List. You can also see the main Maps & Geography category here: - Maps, Atlases & Gazetteers - Search All Historical Maps And Gazetteers Databases

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great tips. When I have everything but the county, I use Google using a little trick. Say I want to find the county that Ellensburg, Washington is located in. I'll enter "Ellensburg, County, Washington" since most pages with all the information listed would be written as "Ellensburg, Kittitas County, Washington" will generally return those words in bold with the county name flanked by the bold words in the preview of the pages, especially with sites like Wikipedia which means far less clicks.