PhilaPlace.org is an attempt by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to make local history into a unified experience – one that takes place both on the internet, as well as in the streets around you. Utilizing the power of Google Maps, scholarly historical writing, oral histories, photographs, and user generated content, PhilaPlace.org aims to fill a niche somewhere between walking tour, museum, and archive.
The site’s authors explain that “PhilaPlace weaves stories shared by ordinary people of all backgrounds with historical records to present an interpretive picture of the rich history, culture, and architecture of our neighborhoods, past and present.”
The map interface is one of the more innovative features of the site – it promises to put the historical events covered by the site into geographical relationships with each other, bridging the gap between historical walking tour and reading a detailed book on local Philadelphia history. A map of modern Philadelphia is featured prominently on the site’s home page, and the intent seems to be that users can access the historical information by clicking on pinpointed links on that map.
PhilaPlace is subtitled “Sharing Stories from the City of Neighborhoods.” The site features input and oral histories from the people who know the city best – its lifelong residents. It also allows users to submit their own stories and memories about city locations. In this way, PhilaPlace strives to be more than a simple archive – it is actually documenting history, adding new information to the historical record. It is not meant to be a passive experience, but more a celebration in which users are invited to take part. At the time of this writing, there are forty-two interviews featured on the site, and other parts of the site promise to incorporate other user contributions as the site grows.
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That is a shame, because the idea of linking history to Google maps is powerful. I, for one, love knowing the ins and outs of my surroundings. I love to walk and to bike, and I often wonder about the buildings and the people I pass on a daily basis. PhilaPlace seems like a great model for integrating history into our daily experience. Perhaps the next step is make the project more open-sourced. A web 2.0 model could be an even more powerful, synergistic way to document the history of a big city like Philadelphia. This site is already presuming that there are many people interested in sharing their expertise about local history – why not take advantage of those numbers and that passion? Write the code, build the site – and then let them put the pins in the map, upload audio, video, photos, and their own stories, the way Wikipedia and Facebook do it.