Luce Foundation to Fund Tibetan and Himalayan Historical GIS

Jan. 23, 2007 -- A recent $325,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation will assist David Germano, associate professor of Tibetan and Buddhist studies, with an unprecedented undertaking—a comprehensive, historical mapping of Tibet and the Himalayas.

The Tibetan & Himalayan Historical Geographic Information Systems (GIS) project is an offshoot of the Tibetan & Himalayan Digital Library (THDL)—an extensive and esteemed online collection of information concerning this region—based at the University of Virginia. 

Germano founded and directs THDL, and is constantly seeking ways to expand its breadth.  The three-year, Luce Foundation award will allow him to greatly augment the mapping aspect of the digital collection.  The main goals of the project involve mapping not only the spatial dimensions of political organizations of the region over time, but also looking closely at monasteries, since they have historically been influential in shaping politics, economy, and education in Tibet and the Himalayas.

Creating a historical GIS of the Tibetan Plateau is a huge challenge.  “Contemporary research involving GIS is characterized by clarity, precision, and comprehensiveness,” notes Germano.  But historical GIS involves mapping over time, and in this instance, designing visual ways to suggest boundaries that may be ambiguous.  “There are so many vagaries in terms of our knowledge of these places,” says Germano.  In addition, since there is not the time or funding to be able to travel to these remote areas and use global positioning system in the mapping, the project will rely on satellite images, cartographical sources, and text to create the maps.  Some sources may include local gazetteers or even hand-drawn maps.

The uncertain character of geographical and political boundaries in this area over time necessitates creativity in design of the maps.  Germano explains that rather than having a concrete boundary, the maps may feature a series of determined points with fading colors to indicate approximate boundaries. 

The project involves extensive interdisciplinary collaboration among religious scholars, anthropologists, historians, geographers, and technologists from around the world.  This integrated team of scholars will be responsible for researching, processing, editing, styling, and finally delivering the information.  The Luce Foundation funding will provide modest stipends for involved faculty.

This original, historical GIS of Tibet and the Himalayas will be user-friendly, and the maps will feature easy to read introductions and other relevant contextual information.  Users will be able to click on areas of a map to interactively explore a particular area.  In addition, maps will be linked to THDL to enable users to access all resources about a particular region including images, audio-video recordings of site lectures, reprints of scholarship, and more.