The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Odessa in Bloom

In summer 2023 we partnered with the Harvard Map Collection on the “Undoing Empire” project. The project was awarded a Harvard Library Advancing Open Knowledge grant to sustain work across a six-month period. It has three goals: 1) create a database of biodiversity in 19th-century Ukraine, 2) create an inclusive strategy for mapping historical places, and 3) develop best practices for producing data that can be preserved via the Harvard Geospatial Library and the Harvard Library (HOLLIS) catalog.

The partnership is a natural one. At the Map Collection, librarians Belle Lipton and Marc McGee want to encourage researchers to produce high-quality spatial data, while the Imperiia team wants the spatial data we produce to be discovered and used. Together, we are addressing a common problem in digital scholarship: Most researcher-generated datasets, which are built from a variety of archival and other materials, are not preserved for the long term in open-access library systems. Even in cases where datasets are discoverable, they are frequently missing important contextual information, such as detailed source citations or descriptions of the methods used to convert those sources into data. These problems make it nearly impossible for others to make sense of — let alone use — these pieces of scholarship.

If a book needs great footnotes, a dataset needs great metadata. Most researchers will tell you that composing either one is anticlimactic at best and tedious at worst. But what if we reinvented the documentation of decision-making? What if we found a way to streamline the production of metadata? What if we developed a model for productive collaboration between researchers and librarians? What if we built real — possibly entertaining — human conversation into the process?

To that end, we tested workflows, documented practices, designed interview questions, and generally attempted to smooth the path from inception to publication of spatial data. We found that as important as it is to iterate on a data model, the best way to produce valuable data is to sit down and talk with other stakeholders.

But this project is also about the content.

The cost of Russia’s war against Ukraine is high, whether calculated in terms of the loss of human life, cultural heritage, or landscape. In the face of all that is being destroyed, this project will help preserve the history of the natural world of Ukraine, starting with some of the most fragile elements of the ecosystem: plants.

In the 19th century, botanists combed the land, intent on documenting everything from cowbane to chokecherry. We are studying the lists they compiled and building a database that enables us to analyze the distribution and prevalence of each species. Perhaps it is a small thing to know where the buttercups grew around Odessa in the 1890s, but it is a powerful thing to be able to talk substantively about changes in biodiversity and the evolution of the built environment over time. In order to do that, the team is recording not only plant species but also the spatial vocabularies non-state actors used to describe the world around them. Tsarist bureaucrats might have seen southern Ukraine in terms of provinces and districts, but naturalists and farmers saw hillsides and coastal cliffs, flooded meadows and suburban kitchen gardens. It isn’t easy to put those places “on the map,” but that is an essential task if we want to truly understand historical space and its significance.

At a Glance

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