Historical Research Into Places

THL Toolbox > Places & Geography > Historical Research into Places

Historical Research into Places Workflow

Contributor(s): David Germano


The page is devoted to useful tips and guides for how to do research on places in Tibet and the Himalayas. The following guidelines are for scholars working across a broad region, rather than a scholar contributing simply a study of a specific feature (for example, a single monastery, etc.) as contribution to the broader work.


1. Identify and summarize the region

The first step is to identify a political region and its rough temporal and geographical definition in about a paragraph. Specify the name of the political region in Unicode Tibetan script or Wylie along with any relevant translation into English, date range, and then a descriptive paragraph of the polity as a starting point.

2. Sketch out relevant features

Against that background, you should take stock of relevant features making a two column list (name and type). This does not need to be comprehensive, since otherwise this would become the actual work. Instead it should be a quick overview that gives a sense of the scope of features involved, and the types. Thus it shouldn’t take more than an hour or so of your time. Indicating the type of features is an important aspect of this, both to give all people involved a notion of scope, and to see if THL’s evolving feature thesaurus requires refinement or supplementation based upon your projected work. Examples of features types include:

  • monasteries
  • polities: both external ones, as well as internal ones which may be subsumed or dominated by the main polity you are examining
  • administrative units
  • administrative seats
  • culture regions
  • tribal areas
  • estates
  • fortresses
  • important natural features
  • sites for important events like wars
  • birth places of important individuals
  • literary references to an entry point or exit point to a region
  • important settlements of any type
  • any other geographical feature that is important - battle sites, council meeting places, etc.

A common research task is to analyze a history, (auto)biography, or other text in terms of place. Basic questions include the location, identity and type of obscure references to places; the relationship between difference places mentioned therein; and general assessment of various issues in terms of how place impacts upon them. A general starting point is to input all place names within the text. Don't worry that the Place Dictionary has far more fields than you want to use - you can use one of its simplified views which only shows a selection of fields and ignore the rest.

The first step is to locate all references to places and make a single database entry for each page. In a given place entry, record all references to that place in the source, including page and line number. In addition, you may want to record the relevant passage and translate or analyze it. You should also notes in terms of any relevant data you can discern from the passage, such as the type of place it seems to be, any reference to its location within a broader region, and any reference to its relationship to other places (such as a day's walk from another village, etc.). Once you have completed this, even that alone should increase your understanding by being able to examine all this place information in isolated fashion. For example, seeing all references to a given place together may give you insight into that place, or seeing a pattern of relationship. All such insights should then be added to the database in the description field. The second step is to try to precisely pinpoint the location of the features mentioned in the text, as well as locate further descriptions of them in the secondary literature.

3. Make provisional suggestions for THL’s Feature Thesaurus

Based upon the preceding, make suggestions for refining or expanding the THL Feature Thesaurus.

4. Describe your sources

Write up a simple assessment of the information and sources that will be focused on for describing these features. In doing so, indicate also which sources can provide specific location information for each feature, and also which sources will be relied up for determining the authoritative names for features.

5. List terminology

Take stock of relevant lexical items: political titles, types of administrative regions, references to polities, and ethnonyms.

6. Provide a bibliography

Take stock of the primary and secondary bibliographical resources in the relevant languages: scholarship in Western languages, Chinese, Tibetan; reference resources, Place Dictionary information.

7. Survey associated resources

Take stock of associated multimedia resources that you may possess or know of: maps, images, audio-video recordings.

8. Assess Encyclopedia entries

Assess the types of features for which you can and will provide rich, structured Encyclopedia descriptions.

9. Assess data templates & Document the structure of your own data

Assess THL Templates for data entry to make sure they are sufficient for the type of structured data you want to express. This is particularly true of the Encyclopedia templates. We will not readily change templates, but if you have good reasons we will consider it.

Note if you have the data in any particular structure (table, spreadsheet, database, structured word processing document), and if so, detail the structure.

10. Describe timeline resources

Describe any timeline you can offer with dates of important events

11. Fashion a preliminary Memo of Understanding

Fill out the following form that will be the basis for fashioning a memo of understanding that all parties involved can use to rationally plan their time and resources. This will form essentially a cover sheet to all the other submitted materials, and will be the basis for expressing the agreement arrived at on the basis of discussions with staff members.

Contact information:

  • Name:
  • Email:
  • Phone:
  • Address:

Name of geo-political unit covered: provide name in Tibetan Unicode or THL Extended Wylie.

Temporal coverage: sketch out the date range.

Deliverables: list out the final product you intend to submit in broad categories.

Timeline: list out the final date of finished submission you project, as well as any important intermediary steps.

Needed tools and technical support: describe any and all tools or templates you will need to do this work

Needed print resources: describe any and all tools or templates you will need help accessing to do this work

Problems: describe any problems you foresee.

Financial issues: this outlines any pertinent financial issues from any side.


Submit Assessment

Submit the results of your preparatory assessment to the THL Team by email or upload.


Based upon your preparatory assessment, hold conversations with staff or directors.

Finalize Memo of Understanding

Based upon the discussions, revise and finalize the memo of understanding, which constitutes a basic workplan. At this point, the actual work begins.


In practice, the actual work will be done in various orders, and often tasks pursued simultaneously. The following survey of tasks is ordered from the perspective of simplicity to complexity, and from the most central to the more peripheral. The one exception is the first two steps, which constitute a useful basis for pursuing the other tasks in an organized fashion.

1. Make feature list comprehensive

We suggest that the first step be to make a comprehensive table of the features that you will be covering with an indication of their type. This can be done in a two columned Word table, or Excel spreadsheet. By doing this initially, you can rapidly create a simple list that forms essentially a check list for the work that you will be doing. In addition, any need to adjust the THL Feature Thesaurus can be dealt with from the start rather than in piecemeal fashion.

All covered features require a Place Dictionary entry. You may also want to add a third column that says “Encyclopedia” which, if checked, indicates you plan to go beyond a simple Place Dictionary entry for that feature to compose a rich, structured Encyclopedia entry.

2. Revise THL Feature Thesaurus if necessary

Based upon the feature list, contact THL staff about revising the THL Feature Thesaurus to cover any new types of features which your work may involve.

3. Place Dictionary Entries

All features – whether natural (a mountain) or cultural (a monastery), huge (an entire polity) or small (a single building) – should have at least a basic Place Dictionary entry made for them. The Place Dictionary constitutes our fundamental inventory of features and is used for all reference purposes, for indexing other resources associated with that feature, and for creating dynamic GIS maps. For detailed instructions on creating Place Dictionary entries, see THL Place Dictionary Editorial Manual.

A Place Dictionary entry does NOT include highly specific types of data that are specific to specific kinds of features, nor does it include any lengthy essays – these are instead located within the Encyclopedia corresponding to that type of feature. The Place Dictionary, in contrast, contains a universal set of categories common to all types of features: name, type, location, short description, and relationship to other features.

At present, we offer an online interface, or we can work with you to submit the data in a structured Word table or custom-made Excel spreadsheet.

Make sure to document all names with all variants in Tibetan, Chinese, and any other relevant language for every feature. For all elements of the entry, document begin/end dates, as well as sources.

The name history field should detail the history of how this feature has been named in narrative fashion. This should include the historical and contemporary, as well as the literary and the colloquial. It should also stress how potentially multiple terms are used, and in what context, as well as talk about the possible ambiguity of terms which might be used for multiple references. For example, “Dergé” refers to a town, a contemporary county, a historical kingdom, and a cultural region. Each of these will have separate Place Dictionary entries, but the name history for each should synthetically describe the broader picture of the term’s usage and referents.

Special note should be made of the location component. This involves especially the need for a latitude and longitude, which is the basis for the dynamic mapping of features within the Place Dictionary. If you do not have access to such information, then you will need to work with geographers within the project to help them ascertain such information in reliance upon whatever location data you can provide. In addition to the latitude and longitude, however, one should also record any other useful information accessible about the location – a description of the environmental setting, points of entrance and exit in relationship to the cardinal directions, narrative descriptions of its location, and so forth. We especially encourage people to travel with a compass so as to be able to speak to the orientation of valleys, buildings, and so forth – i.e. what is south/north and east/west.

Special note should also be made about the feature description, which can range from a single line to a several page synopsis, but no longer. The following provides guidelines for a standardized format for a full description, though the format will vary somewhat depending on the category of feature being described. The summary should begin with a single sentence that encapsulates the feature, which will then be used in various contexts to describe the future briefly. The sentence should start with the historical (if that is important) that also indicates its geographical location culturally & its feature type (monastery, town, mountain, etc.), and then ends with an indication of its contemporary relevance and situation. If necessary, use a semi-colon to separate the two sides. An example is:

“The town of Degé was the cultural and religious center of Kham (Eastern Tibet) from the eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, as well as the capital of the politically powerful Degé kingdom and center of the Degé cultural region; nowadays, it is the administrative seat of Degé County, one of the eighteen counties of Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province, China.”

Please do not list elevation, which is a separate field in the Place Dictionary. For historically important places, the second paragraph should be a historical synopsis, while the last paragraph is about the contemporary situation. If the place’s importance is really more about the contemporary situation, then this should be reversed with historical antecedents coming subsequently. In between, there should be a paragraph about details concerning the geography, transportation, and climate. The rationale for this is that people are pulled in by the opening two paragraphs, and thus this type of detail will then be of more interest. Of course if the feature is a natural object – depending upon its cultural associations –it may be that the geographical information should be emphasized instead by coming in the second paragraph.

An additional important component is citing “related features”, both in terms of their name and the nature of their relationship.

Finally, choose an exemplary photo that will appear as a thumbnail for the image in the Place Dictionary feature entry and give it a relevant caption. Please do not choose something hard to understand or peripheral, but rather choose a panoramic view of the feature, a defining buildings, a defining cultural activity, or some other central aspect illustrative of the feature and the activities that take place therein.

4. Encyclopedia Entries

The Feature Encyclopedia entries provide the means to detailed structured information unique to a specific type of feature as well as rich essays. The first step is to familiarize yourself with the template for the type of feature you will be detailing. The following are a list of types of features for which we are planning structured templates. Not all of these are finished, and we are prioritizing completion in dependence upon contributors priorities. If you feel we should have a structured template for a type of feature not detailed here, please contact us:

  • Administrative Units
  • Archaeological sites
  • Estates
  • General features
  • Monasteries
  • Polities
  • Routes (pilgrimage, trade)
  • Sacred sites

Doing an Encyclopedia Entry consists of two components, though both need not be done necessarily: (i) filling out the relevant structured template with relevant information, and (ii) composing a descriptive essay on the feature. The end publication will incorporate the Place Dictionary feature entry for that item, so there is no need to reproduce the feature summary prepared for the Place Dictionary. We are attempting to create a unified work flow system, so that one can create a Place Dictionary and Encyclopedia entry for a given feature in an integrated manner using a single form, which subsequent processing then separates out into separate Place Dictionary and Encyclopedia entries.

5. Multimedia Cataloging

If you have images, audio-video recording, or maps, these all have to be technically processed in the appropriate way, cataloged by you, and indexed according to associated places using the THL Place Dictionary feature IDs.

6. Bibliographies

All information needs to be properly sourced, while bibliographies of relevant primary and secondary sources are valuable in their own right. We currently have an online bibliographical management tool allowing for creation and classification of bibliographies. However you may find it easier to prepare bibliographies offline for importation. Consult with THL staff about the present form of your bibliographical resources and how best to proceed.

7. Terminology

Terminology can come up in your work in a variety of ways - political titles, types of administrative regions, references to polities, ethnonyms, and the like. All of these should be properly defining within the THL dictionary. At present the dictionary editorial interface is being finalized – contact THL staff about how best to proceed. In the meantime, you can also simply keep a word processing document with words and definitions, as well as sources demonstrating the usage of the terms in question.


Increasingly, work will be done online so that publication will be instant either with the editing, or when you decide to publish it. Otherwise, if work is done offline, we suggest planning work in phases, so that you can post resources in phases rather than waiting to a final submission. In conjunction with end publication, it is essential that your own bio-data is properly registered within THL so that all credit citing your name can be linked back to that.

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