Created by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, PhilaPlace.org is an interactive Web site that allows visitors to explore—and actively participate in—the history of Philadelphia through multimedia formats including Google maps, historical essays, audio and video files, and photographs. Although PhilaPlace.org is focused on telling the story of two specific areas—the Old Southward and the Greater Northern Liberties, both historically immigrant and working class neighborhoods—the site contains information on multiple neighborhoods and streets. It aims to promote the rich cultural history of the city’s spaces and sites, and provides users a glimpse into how their neighborhoods evolved over time.
The site allows users to investigate this history in many different ways. Visitors can search by collection, neighborhood, topics (including cemeteries, immigration and migration, education, and over forty-nine oral interviews), type of media (image, audio, video), and contributor (Historical Society of Pennsylvania, partners, and even community members); all of which provide interactive information on the historical events, buildings, and people associated with each location/topic. A blog post, with essays written by the PhilaPlace team, partners, and community scholars, also provides further information and in-depth stories about local history.
The most exciting and interactive feature of PhilaPlace is the Google map interface. Geographical representations of the site’s historical information allow users to take a virtual historic tour of contemporary Philadelphia. The home page contains a modern map of the city in which users can discover historical information about particular pinned locations. Prominent historic sites, buildings, etc. are pinpointed and linked with stories and media files that unveil that location’s history, both past and present. Visitors can also explore maps by topic, focus in on specific neighborhoods or individual streets, and view city maps from 1875, 1895, 1934, and 1962. Additionally, interactive map tours are featured that take visitors through two neighborhoods and over three centuries with photographs, oral interviews, videos, and stories.
A key mission of PhilaPlace is to “encourage investigations of place as a lens to understanding history and culture,” and the creators have done much through their site to promote this through community education and involvement. Not only does the site contain interactive media, it also features a section for educators. Lesson plans and school projects, aligned with Pennsylvania state standards, are provided for grades 6-12. Teachers can use the interactive exhibits to engage students—both virtually and physically—in local history through GIS mapping projects, public art and cultural expressions, and treasure hunts through particular streets.
All visitors are also encouraged to “map their own stories in place and time.” The site contains oral interviews with local historians, immigrants, and other community members whose knowledge and experience informs and enriches the history of these Philadelphia neighborhoods. Any user can also “add a story,” meaning they can upload images, videos, audio files, and other information regarding specific places or street addresses. One hope of the creators is for the site to eventually encompass information on the entire city, in large part from contributions made by local community members. This “add a story” feature, however, is not prominent on the site.
Searching through the site, I found myself captivated by it. It brought the neighborhoods and history to life and provided me a rare glimpse into the Philadelphia streets that my great-grandparents traversed. Its interactive content was easy to navigate and the variety of media, topics, and stories invite users of all kinds—not just academic historians. In this way, the site impressively accomplishes its mission of producing history from a community perspective and for a diverse audience. The inclusion of modern community voices and experiences also enriches the site. This, however, could be done better. The “add a story” feature could be more visible on the home page, and throughout the site. Users could also be invited to expand the site in other ways—such as asking volunteers to transcribe archival documents or oral histories, encouraging students to comment on their experiences using the site for school projects, or including a genealogy feature that allows users to share information about specific individuals or families and connect with other researchers.
These ideas and additions, however, raise other challenges and questions about how to maintain and update sites like this in the most effective ways. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania also hosts many other websites, projects, etc., so how can staff best reach users and continuously connect with them and encourage participation, both virtually and physically? What are the advantages and disadvantages to active community member participation on Web sites like PhilaPlace? In what other ways could staff members improve this kind of project?
Ultimately, though, PhilaPlace presents an innovate digital archive of Philadelphia’s rich history—juxtaposing images and stories of the past and present for users to interact with and explore.