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Mapping Historical Photographs for the Common Good

Location: Ballroom III Level: Novice
Average rating: ****.
(4.00, 1 rating)

Millions of historical photos from public archives are already available on the internet, but they are currently distributed in a vast array of stand-alone collections, utilizing hundreds of disparate presentation and search techniques. The end result for researchers and the general public alike is often frustration, boredom, and apathy; while painstakingly digitized imagery sits idle and undiscovered. The story of our common history remains buried.

THE TOOLS. We will review existing and new public initiatives in the field of historical archives that are attempting to do at least one of several things:

  • Digitize, geotag, and present previously unavailable historical photographs (phillyhistory.org).
  • Use public engagement strategies to solicit community input to increase traffic to the archives and add value to the data (Flickr Commons).
  • Build robust open source software to share rich collections designed for scholars, museums, libraries, archives, and enthusiasts (Omeka).

TAKING IT A STEP FURTHER. We’ll look at a new initiative (codename: Open Index of Archives) that aims to create a centralized database built on an open source platform to collect image urls and metadata of source material from stand-alone collections, Flickr Commons, Omeka, and others. This database will be accessible through an API to further enable the dissemination of public archives that have heretofore been limited to independent collections.

ENABLING THE MASHUPS. We’ll review some examples of projects that are bringing history to life and building community around historical archives. Prototypes like LookBackMaps and HistoryPlot demonstrate the possibilities coming to life as a new generation of history enthusiasts and academics take a crack at presentations of the past, including map mashups and ghostly augmented reality apps on the iPhone. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney makes old stuff new again with their participation in the Flickr Commons and beyond. And Paul Hagon at the National Library of Australia is making geolocation a priority for the archive community.

OUR COMMON PAST IS OF VITAL IMPORTANCE. Finally, we’ll take a look at why and how these mapping efforts can and should remain free for the sake of historical and cultural preservation.

Photo of Jon Voss

Jon Voss


Jon Voss is founder of LookBackMaps, an innovative public history project that is one of many new initiatives in the field of historical and cultural heritage. He also runs jumpSLIDE networks, a small IT consultancy in San Francisco. Voss has been managing IT projects for non-profits and small to medium businesses in the Bay Area for over ten years. His work on mapping historical photos stems from a love of history and a chance run-in with a band of privy diggers who excavated his back yard in SF’s Mission district several years ago.

Photo of Barbara Hui

Barbara Hui


Barbara Hui is a grad student in Comp Lit at UCLA, where she is finishing up her dissertation entitled Narrative Networks: Mapping Literature at the Turn of the 21st
. She is also programmer/analyst at the UC Humanities Research Institute, has worked extensively as a developer on Hypercities, the Danish Folklore Data Nexus, and other historical/archival/literary mapping projects, and is currently a fellow of the NEH Institute for Enabling Geospatial Scholarship.