What Is A Gazetteer?

A gazetteer is a geographical directory or dictionary.
A gazetteer is a geographical directory or dictionary.

A gazetteer is a geographical directory or dictionary that is used in conjunction with an atlas or map, and contains information about the physical features and social statistics of a country, continent or region. The contents of a gazetteer can also include a subject’s gross domestic product (GDP), population, literacy rate, and dimensions of peaks and waterways. The information contained in a gazetteer is usually sub-divided into topics and listed in alphabetical order.

Historical Background

The history of gazetteers can be traced back thousands of years to the Hellenistic period of Ancient Greece. An article written in 1923 by twentieth-century historian W.W. Tarn suggests that a list and description of provinces in Alexander the Great's empire that dates from between 324 and 323 BC represents the earliest known gazetteer. This date range is estimated based on the fact that the text contains information written before the Partition of Babylon, which occurred in 323 BC. It is possible that gazetteers were used even earlier in Ancient Egypt, although the history remains unclear. British archeologist Penelope Wilson describes an ancient papyrus from Tanis, Egypt that includes information about every administrative unit of ancient Egypt. Although the document is similar to a gazetteer, Wilson does not classify it as such.

The first known gazetteer from China dates back to the first century. However, gazetteers became more common during the Song dynasty, which lasted from 960-1279, due to the use of print media. Chinese gentry became involved in producing gazetteers that contained information about their local areas and served as a source of pride. Additionally, a geographical dictionary was written by Stephanus of Byzantium during the sixth century. Despite being currently incomplete, the text is considered to be greatly significant to the creation of gazetteers in Europe. Today, gazetteers are readily available online and in the reference section of libraries.

Modern Era

The widespread use of gazetteers throughout world grew quickly since they were first created. In Britain, gazetteers became popular, especially in the nineteenth century, as publishers such as Chambers, Fullarton, W. & K. Johnston, and Mackenzie attempted to meet public demand for information given the expanding British Empire. Technological advancement has helped innovate gazetteers in Britain, including the National Land and Property Gazetteer and the National Gazetteer for Scotland. Increased globalization makes gazetteers continue to be important, although significant amounts of content is now produced digitally rather than in print. Additionally, digital developments, such as Google Maps, help people learn about and explore new places.

Significance Of Gazetteers

Gazetteers are designed for use alongside atlases or maps, and therefore contain information about various regions of the world. As a result, they remain important, especially for researchers and students. The information contained in a gazetteer provides the reader with various information about a given region or country, and can even be used to develop plans for roads and transportation networks. Finally, gazetteers are useful in navigation, and are used in conjunction with maps by explorers and mountain climbers.


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