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.
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.
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.