PhilaPlace 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, 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.”

There are several ways to access the information stored at PhilaPlace.  A menu offers users the choice to interface the site by using a map of Google map of Philadelphia, by topic, by collection, or by checking out what’s new on the blog.  Browsing by topic or collection yields direct access to a wide array of information, detailing nineteenth century race riots, local newsletters, local celebrities, and more.

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.

The blog has not been updated since September.

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.

2 Replies to “PhilaPlace”

  1. I agree with you whole heartedly. I loved the idea of Phila Place and I had fun interchanging the old maps with the more modern maps. This idea would be of great use in many places. A lot of towns, especially small towns, have historical societies with buildings used as museums for the town. Most of the buildings like this I have come across are small or within other buildings. A lot of people don't know where their historical society is or if it does anything. These small towns often do have records, including old maps. If they did something like Phila Place and possibly had workshops showing had the site worked at libraries or something, this would be an excellent way to keep interest in local histories and preserve the memories of contributors. While it is one thing to say such-and-such building used to be a store, getting testimonial from a former worker and putting on the internet for all to see is something else. These towns could gain local traffic for tourism and make it easier for generations to connect.

  2. This project is being copied by a number of cities now. I know New York is working on one, and and think D.C. has something similar in the works. It will be interesting to see, once this project develops how different narratives will work in this project. For instance. Imagine two iPhone apps written to accompany walking tours of the District, one written by the Smithsonian National History Museum, one written by the NAACP. You're not only going to have very different points of interests but, potentially different maps, detailing different areas of the city. This project also offers some interesting opportunities for interdisciplinary work since it sits at the cross-roads between history and geography.

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