How do we share our knowledge of historic places?

January 14, 2010 by

How do scholars, activists, tourists, neighbors, city planners, and preservationists find and share information about historic places in their communities, in their cities, and in their regions? How do they identify relationships between places or understand the context within such places were constructed, occupied, or even destroyed? In most cases, anyone interested in these questions might rely on a wide range of tools and resources, such as calling a local historical society, finding a walking tour brochure at a local visitor center, visting the local history section of the neighborhood library, searching a web-based database provided by a State Historic Preservation Office, or simply searching online in the hope that someone might have already investigated the location. The latter is often productive but resources are currently fragmented both topically and geographically, as well as suffering from an absence of essential features such as mapping, sorting or filtering. If you are searching for information on historic theaters Cinema Treasures is indispensable, roadside architecture can be found at, the Labelscar retail history blog has documented hundreds of shopping malls but none of these sites allow the consideration of the unusual buildings within their local contexts. For example, what African-American neighborhood did the Comet Theater serve? What was located at the site of the Westland Mall prior to  its construction in 1969?

In addition, while a few websites offer a rich user experience, the web services provided by State Historic Preservation Offices are often severely limited by accident or by design (as some local and state governments license their data on historic places to private contracts if they maintain an updated database at all). Take a look at the National Register database provided by the Maryland Historical Trust or the basic PDF list provided by Virignia to get a sense of the limited services provided by government institutions in this regard. Even more effective examples, such as the Pennsylvania Historical Markers website or the National Register NPS Focus database, are often closed and provide few opportunities to even make comments, let alone access the underlying database for mashups or analysis. Regrettably, few preservation organizations even at a state or municipal level, let alone small museums, nonprofit preservation advocacy organizations, neighborhood and city historical societies, have sufficient technical expertise or capacity within their organizations to build and maintain new and effective web applications.

Even with the issues I’ve identified with both independent and publicly supported websites sharing data on historic places, the most serious issue is the great extent to which our knowledge of historic places is limited to the minds of a few individuals in our communities, in a box of documents sitting in a damp basement, or a drawer full of unlabeled photos at a neighborhood church. I’m curious to explore the potential of building websites that support sharing our knowledge of historic places, capturing new knowledge from those who hold it, and allowing scholars, activists, and interested citizens to explore this data at local, regional and national scales. Possible models for this approach may lie with smaller projects such as the Philadelphia Architects and Buildings Database, the North Carolina Architects & Builders project, the University of Berkley’s California’s Living New Deal project, Teaching + Learning Cleveland, the Community Almanac from The Open Planning Project, the Open Plaques website, and dozens of others. I’d be very talking with anyone who has an interest in the intersection of place and new media to explore these questions further, but I’m especially curious how my questions relate to those presented by Elizabeth SchultzCandace Nast, Marjorie McLellan, Andrea Odiorne, Justin Hons, Stephen Titchenal, Doug Lambert, Jonathan Tarr, and Phil Sager. For a quick bit of background, I currently work for Baltimore Heritage, a preservation advocacy organization. My past experience includes work with the DC Historic Preservation Office and a number of small museums and historical societies.

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9 Responses to How do we share our knowledge of historic places?

  1. Andrea Odiorne on January 14, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    I worked for a public broadcasting station for a number or years. Though I am often quick to eschew pbs models for doing public history or scholarship, there is a lot to envy in television’s ability to match similar programming, cross-promote, audience-build etc. For a public TV station, airing Ken Burns series during pledge week is a great opportunity to promote local history programs. Spectacular traveling exhibitions seem to serve a similar function for local art museums.

    Though larger museums are great at promoting anniversaries, exhibitions, and strategic material releases, smaller projects seem to update intermittenly. I am not sure I know enough about smaller museums and archives, but it seems like exhibition strategies play a large part in attracting people to the physical space. I image most of those visitors will not return to research in the permanent collections. A digital permanent collection is easier to access when someone is attracted by an exhibit, and of course easier to comment on and add to.

    I have never been a fan of history weeks or months. I would like everyday to be history day, but I think for getting people interested in place, lor objects, dates can be of particular use. I wouldn’t want to further consolidate the limits that time-periods put on understanding places. Could my old home town of Richmond ever be thought of as a post-war town given the abundance Civil War statues and markers all? Still, in some of my more utopian moments, I image a Digital Humanities pledge week, where all of the social media and google news links lead everyone who searches historical places, or times, subscribe to blogs, etc., to a mammoth network, where national and local content can reinforce each other. Did I just make an argument for media consolidation? This needs more work, but thatcamp time is running out. Looking forward to talking about this.

  2. Marjorie McLellan on January 14, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    New York City’s Citylore project “Cities of Memory” permits visitors to contribute stories and immages of places or to create thematic walking tours on particular themes.

    Citylore “curates” place based features from their own fieldwork and partners as well. The whole is polished and heavily produced but also accessible for both the casual visitor and, apparently, the contributor. The project features consolidation–bringing lots of disparate people and stories together in one place but it also has the potential to feature contributions from many partners. I’m curious how, and to what extent, we can produce something similar using opensource tools rather than a one off digital production. And how that production can have the quality of inviting social network gathering places. We are close to the point where enhanced cell phones will call up place based stories like these from the Web. But as much as you can access information in fragments by location, I’m curious how you can make the information accessible both by location and make the site a place to share, interact, enjoy, learn.

  3. Lee Wright on April 20, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    Great examples that underscore a very important point: Our best chance at increasing understanding and broad-based support for historic preservation is through platforms that enable individuals to participate, too.

    I recently discussed one approach to an open platform for the preservation of local history at Barcamp Boston 5– slides here:–and am interested in connecting with Eli and others who share this same interest.

    Lee Wright

  4. THATCamp 2010 » Blog Archive on May 17, 2010 at 11:56 pm

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