At the Columbus THATCamp in 2010, Eli Pousson asked the question, “How do we share our knowledge of historic places?” I would like to revisit that question at the Chicago 2011 THATCamp. Below is Eli’s original argument which still holds true today. Add to the resources Eli listed below a slew of commercial sites like OpenBuildings.com, a commercial, community-driven website that lists international historic, contemporary and conceptual architecture. It functions as an openly editable encyclopedia of buildings from around the world. This and other sites with unproven accuracy abound including Archiplanet, a section of Wikipedia that catalogs more than 100,000 structures; all entries are user contributed with unproven vetting and uneven quality. Is it possible or even desirable to aggregate all the various online sites about the built world into one megasite? Are there new forms of online publishing that would better support documentation of architecture, landscapes and their context? Will augmented reality, 3D models superimposed on Google Earth maps, and other technical innovations dramatically alter the way we present our knowledge of historic places? Can we envision a solution for how to represent the built world in the online environment? I would welcome a discussion. Pauline Saliga, Director, Society of Architectural Historians
Eli Pousson’s original statement: 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 RoadsideArchitecture.com, 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 Schultz, Candace 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.
Tags: historic preservation, history
This entry was posted on Thursday, January 14th, 2010 at 4:26 PM and is filed under Sessions and Ideas. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.