Some Thoughts on the State-of-the-art of Humanities’ Spatial Research Infrastructures in the Nordic Countries

October 2022

Alexandra Petrulevich and Sara Ellis Nilsson

In what ways can your project be understood as spatial research infrastructure?

What challenges have you encountered on the way towards linked open data and the implementation of FAIR principles?

These were two of the questions the participants of the NOS-HS workshop Spatial Data Medieval to Modern in Uppsala 2022 were asked to ponder and elaborate upon.

Quite unsurprisingly, the questionnaire answers as well as the presentations showcase that spatial data and spatial research infrastructures across the Nordic humanities are defined, understood and presented in multiple ways due to the differences in points of departure, goals, scope, and priorities of the ca 15 participating projects. The spatial datasets included archaeological finds, artefacts in cultural heritage collections, art objects, maps, cult manifestations, spatial references in medieval literature, place-names, and other linguistic materials such as dialect and folklore collections. The ambition to serve open geocoded humanities data to external users, researchers and the general public alike, is the most important common denominator on the infrastructure side irrespective of whether the projects are shaped by specific research questions in an academic context or by the structure and logic of the underlying collections in the cultural heritage sector.

Another recurring line of thought concerned the dominance of so-called “mainstream approaches” towards spatial data encoded in models such as the digital gazetteer model (e.g. Goodchild & Hill 2008; Dunn 2019) or CIDOC-CRMgeo (Conceptual Reference Model). The approach enshrines a specific perspective on spatial data that gives priority to the concept of place defined as coordinates, types, and name labels. However, the idea of a common standard for every single iteration of geocoded humanities data could be contested. Although common standards, ontologies, and vocabularies are seen as desirable, the non-negotiable implementation of already existing standards on a rapidly expanding flora of highly heterogenous datasets could easily turn into a straitjacket that hampers, not advances future scholarship (cf. discussion in Oldman 2021; Golub et al. 2021). A feasible way of remedying this situation could be via a selection of possible alternatives aligned with different approaches to humanities spatial data within the general LOD- and FAIR-compatible frame. The proposed standards can be seen as compatible building blocks that “talk to each other” and that can easily be combined. “The unique” design and/or methodology should be able to find their (re-)user without the project outputs necessarily turning into silos. Such an approach would better reflect the interests and meet the needs of the academic and governmental sectors, as well as the various support functions provided by digital humanities units and external and/or internal developer teams. Geocoded humanities data is after all not constrained to the cultural heritage sector; it is often multi-layered and also functions as historical and present-day data such as place-names or medieval churches in a contemporary landscape.

With regards to the challenges encountered by the groups, a lack of relevant role models in the different sectors and fields seems to be common. Another issue reflects the fact that the majority of the projects represent and advocate open e-infrastructures where multiple datasets are linked together and/or multiple repositories are involved on the fly as the users access a particular resource. Some disciplines, especially archaeology, seem to have access to sufficient support, both nationally and internationally, with distributed and locally hosted infrastructure hubs available. In the Nordic countries, there are initiatives such as SweDigArch in Sweden, Archaeological Digital Excavation Documentation (ADED) and Askeladden at Riksantikvaren in Norway, and Fund og Fortidsminder in Denmark, as well as the overarching EU-supported infrastructure initiatives ARIADNEPlus and Iperion-HS. For projects working with non-archaeological or otherwise “non-prototypical” datasets, there is often a problem with finding any type of sustainable environment or previous projects that truly match the scope or research questions. For this reason, most of the projects were described as unique in the participants’ answers.

Finally, it is worth highlighting that the level of implementation of LOD (linked open data) and FAIR standards is uneven among the participating projects. It was pointed out multiple times in the workshop discussions that LOD is not a binary concept. This means that LOD work is ever ongoing and LOD implementation can look differently depending on the prerequisites of a specific project and availability – as well as future developments – of any large-scale surrounding infrastructure including national, European or international authority and support functions, e.g. ARIADNEPlus or Europeana. The interrelationships between these two key concepts, LOD and FAIR, were also discussed because LOD-implementation does not guarantee or entail FAIR-compatibility. Moreover, the distributed e-infrastructure framework can complicate the assessment of the FAIR implementation because FAIR-compatibility then is required of all the components, even those that are beyond the project group’s control. Approximately half of the participating projects were described as LOD-compatible; in such cases, the developer teams have a solid state-of-the-art knowledge base of both LOD and FAIR. However, the other half have been struggling with practical implementations of a range of theoretical concepts. One major reason has already been mentioned above: the lack of role models and/or guidance, concrete examples of LOD and FAIR applications across fields and sectors, and the need for a broader conceptual model for geocoded humanities data that would be of use irrespective of what direction you come from and where you are heading. Finally, LOD requires well-developed interdisciplinary and multisectoral environments as well as overarching national and international infrastructure, essential must-haves that are lacking for many projects.


Dunn, Stuart E. A History of Place in the Digital Age. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2019.

Goodchild, Michael Frank and Lauren L. Hill. “Introduction to Digital Gazetteer Research.” International Journal of Geographical Information Science, 22, no. 10 (October 1, 2008): 1039–44. DOI: 10.1080/13658810701850497. (Accessed June 20, 2021).

Golub, Koraljka, Ahmad M. Kamal & Johan Vekselius. “Knowledge organisation for digital humanities. An introduction.” In Information and Knowledge Organisation in Digital Humanities. Global Perspectives. Digital Research in the Arts and Humanities, edited by Koraljka Golub and Ying-Hsang Liu, 1–22. London: Routledge, 2021.

Oldman, Dominic. “Digital research, the legacy of form and structure and the ResearchSpace system.” In Information and Knowledge Organisation in Digital Humanities. Global Perspectives. Digital Research in the Arts and Humanities, edited by Koraljka Golub and Ying-Hsang Liu, 131–153. London: Routledge, 2021.