Researching recent American history can be shamefully easy. Historians of other countries are constantly faced with international research trips, locked archives and missing or destroyed documents. Not only do American historians often find that they have ample historical material at their disposal, but the route to finding that material seems to be getting simpler every year.

The rapidly expanding quantity of material available online is particularly game-changing. In fact, when it comes to accessing primary-source material, internet literacy puts the historically inclined amateur nearly on par with trained academics. Consider, for example, the explosion of genealogy sites, any of which grant even the passively curious access to centuries worth of government documentation. One  clearinghouse page currently lists over 300,000 genealogical research websites.

My new favorite online tool for researching San Francisco history is Old S.F. This stripped down, pleasantly designed and intuitively navigable site is remarkably addictive for those of us already addicted to our city’s past. San Franciscans are notorious for being both history obsessed and technologically savvy, so it should come as no surprise that there are so many online local history resources. FoundSF, sparkletak and the Western Neighborhoods Projects, just to name a few of the more extensive ones, are each great examples of this embarrassment of riches.

The problem that many of these sites face though is the same one that is increasingly troubling all American historians. We’ve left the world of information scarcity only to enter one of information overload. How do you sift through it all? How do you organize it to help it make sense?

An excellent example of this problem is the San Francisco Public Library‘s digitized Historical Photograph Collection. Every time I explore this site I’m struck with two thoughts. First, I’m amazed by how much great stuff they have. Second, I’m confounded with the prospect of navigating through it all.

Photo credit: San Francisco Public Library

Search terms are great; however, they take a lot of creativity to make them do what you want them to. For example, how many searches are required to find out how your neighborhood has changed over time? You might end up entering “Sunset,”  “Outer Sunset,”  “L Taraval,”  “Sunset Blvd.,”  “Stern Grove,”  “Lowell High,”  “Fleishhacker”  and on and on. Each search gives you a long list of photos, one after another. Like a TSA agent staring at an X-ray machine screen, your eyes start to glaze over.

Photo credit: San Francisco Public Library

Thus my excitement in finding Old S.F.. By combining the Library’s photograph collection with Google Maps, the creators of this site have made these photographs markedly more accessible. Interested in a particular neighborhood? Just zoom into it. Want to weed out the more recent photos? Just slide the date on the timeline.

Geomapping images is nothing new in the internet information world. It’s what made Google Earth such a great time-waster. Nor is it the only site that geomaps historical images, as evidenced by HistoryPin. That said, Old S.F. does a wonderful job of applying a useful organizational strategy to an established collection of images. It doesn’t just pile more historical information onto the internet, but rather, makes what’s already there easier to find.

Photo credit: San Francisco Public Library

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  1. We have added all our articles and images to a map for quite a while. Maps are great!


    • Hi David. Thanks for showing me that! I want to be clear: I adore your site. In fact, I gave a presentation on community history projects in a class at UCLA recently and I showed the Western Neighborhoods Project as a model. Great to know there are still corners of the site to explore.

  2. Drew Bourn says:

    That’s a great discussion of the OldSF website. In addition to OldSF, there are a number of other projects attempting to deliver historic images of San Francisco through a map-based format. Archivists, especially, are wrestling with the challenges of how to make digital versions of historic materials (including images) as easy to access as possible. An overview of some current projects and some of this issues involved can be found in the post, “Geotagging: Using Maps to Organize Historic Images,” on the blog “Using San Francisco History,” here:


  3. Jim says:

    A more powerful search tool is certainly a convenience and a joy, but I still enjoy serendipitously stumbling across something I had no premeditated notion to find. Kinda like finding an Avengers record wedged between a bunch of Ellington LP’s. You had to be there.

    That said, I’m sure I’ll be able to while away many precious hours on the Old SF site. Thanks!

  4. cindy casey says:

    Wow – thank you for all this fabulous information.

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