The Best Darn Interactive History Tool…courtesy of PhilaPlace

I have never been to Philadelphia, which is surprising considering its historical significance and my high degree of nerdiness when it comes to history. That being said, I have always wanted to know more about the city, its history and neighborhoods included. Of course I read about the city on some site like Wikipedia. But a simple history of something can be stiff and relatively uninteresting. I wanted more; I wanted a site where I could learn the history and explore. So when I came across PhilaPlace I had an ‘ah ha’ moment. PhilaPlace is a great example of a website that teaches kids and adults alike about a city, and not just in a boring, stiff way. It uses mostly interactive features. It also connects communities. It weaves ordinary stories with historical record. If you don’t know much about Philadelphia and its neighborhoods and you want to know more, PhilaPlace is the website for you.

PhilaPlace is the brainchild of the Historical Society of Philadelphia (HSP). It was put together in phases. Originally, the HSP received funds to put together two walking tours, one in Old Southwark and one in North Liberties and Kensington. The second phase consisted of the creation of an interactive website. Whoever came up with the website idea is a genius.

The mission statement on the website reads: “PhilaPlace is an interactive Web site, created by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, that connects stories to places across time in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. 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 PhilaPlace Web site uses a multimedia format – including text, pictures, audio and video clips, and podcasts – and allows visitors to map their own stories in place and time. More than a Web site, PhilaPlace includes ongoing community programs and publications, from workshops for teachers, to trolley tours, and exhibits. PhilaPlace is an engaging, meaningful way to understand more about where we live, and will serve as an enduring record of our heritage.” I wanted to share this monstrous paragraph of a mission statement with you because it best sums up the purpose and use of the site.

If a student is assigned the task of learning something about Philadelphia and don’t want to be bored to death with paragraph after paragraph of knowledge, then PhilaPlace is perfect because they can learn while playing with one of many interactive features. It’s the same idea as a museum; kids often are bored at museums, I know I was at many museums when I was younger, which is why many museums have interactive features. At PhilaPlace not only can people search through and map out parts of Philadelphia, but they can pinpoint areas based on certain search topics, read essays on neighborhood hotspots, search the collection of images, audio files, and video files, read blog posts, add blog posts, support the site via donations, create your own PhilaPlace page, and so much more. The entire site is interactive, making it an essential tool for educators and interested peoples alike.

One of the key goals of PhilaPlace is to get teachers and students to use the site to explore the history of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods and to use mapping and local history as a means of understanding historical landscape and shaping historical and cultural inquiries. I think that PhilaPlace is successful in this sense. Its interactive features are sure to entice and interest students. One of the best features of the site that truly brings the community together and is the epitome of an interactive feature is that visitors are encourage to create their own MyPhilaPlace pages where they can save and share stories and create a tour/itinerary with Google maps.  And let’s be honest, everyone loves google maps.

Here is the moral to the story: PhilaPlace is a great tool for exploring one of our oldest, most interesting and diverse cities. It is educational and fun. It connects communities and generations. Use it. Explore it. Have fun.

4 Replies to “The Best Darn Interactive History Tool…courtesy of PhilaPlace”

  1. Nice post! I got a great sense of the site, I was thrilled to see you talk through the mission statement of the site, and you did a nice job explaining how the site itself works.

    I would be interested to know a bit more about how you felt your experience using the site fit with, complicated, or even conflicted with that mission. I wholeheartedly agree that the site is engaging, and as you suggest the interactivity of it lets us follow our own paths. Mission statement aside though, what did you learn about Philadelphia through interacting with the site, and if you had the opportunity to make a suggestion or two to the sites creators what would you want them to consider changing, adding, or refining?

    1. I really enjoyed my experience using PhilaPlace. I was surprised to see that it only highlights two specific neighborhoods though. I wish it explored each neighborhood in the entire city. However, it does thoroughly explore the two neighborhoods it sets out to explore. The interactive features of the site are hands down the best aspects. You can build your own stories, take tours, or explore the vast collection of other people’s stories. I learned a lot about these neighborhoods, for instance they were home to mostly working class people. You can browse the neighborhoods to find out more about different parts by occupation or even population. It is all very captivating. If I had to make a suggestion to the site creators, I would definitely have to bring up the point that Nathan made in his post. It is kind of hard to navigate the site and the stories with regards to specific points in time. I do think that the main point of the site is to weave the stories together so you can search via certain topics in the neighborhood, and not by time frame. However, if the site creators could somehow make it easier to explore the site by time frame without changing the overall mission of the site, that would be much more helpful for people who wish to do research on the site or who are interested in particular times.

  2. Like you I found PhilaPlace to be an extremely interesting website. I wonder though how much it actually “weaves” the stories it provides together. Scatter amongst the map are stories that span over two hundred years of history. What time period these different markers comes from can be found through clicking on them. Still though, amongst the dozens of locations provided if one find themselves interested in a certain time period they will have considerable difficulty trying to find stories and locations from that specific time. Instead of a rich history being weaved together I found a collection of largely unrelated stories that one could search based on broad topics. What interests many people most about history are the narratives, and hear there are no narrative threads that pull people deeper into to PhilaPlace.

    1. I completely agree that PhilaPlace is lacking in the weaving together stories via time frame. I do think that they should improve this a bit. On the other hand though, I don’t think the purpose of the site was to be able to search for specific time frames, but rather it is supposed to link histories stories together via neighborhoods. The stories may be unrelated but that is the point. The site is meant to have different stories from the same neighborhoods to highlight the different experiences different people had in these Philadelphia neighborhoods. One part of the site you might find useful is under the “educators” tab. There are links to two time lines that correspond with each of the two neighborhoods that the site highlights.

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