Dozens of books compare images of this historic city over time, but now a website offers an unprecedented way to see the changes street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood.
HistoryPin.com attaches historic photos to Google maps and allows users to search for locations or merely “stroll” the streets and compare current views with ones from the past. Through partnerships with local organizations including Historic New England and the Boston Public Library, the site helps users see the dramatic changes the city has undergone.
David Dwiggins is a systems librarian and archivist for Historic New England, a 101-year-old nonprofit organization that works to preserve objects, structures, and sites throughout the region. Dwiggins said HistoryPin is part of a growing trend among historians and archivists to use mapping technology to connect photos, objects, and other information to maps to engage an audience.
The site was developed by the British nonprofit group We Are What We Do, which creates products, experiences, and digital tools to support individuals making social and environmental change. One of the group’s goals, Dwiggins said, is to increase intergenerational communication within families and communities, and they created HistoryPin as one way to help get those conversations started.
The group launched the beta version of the website in 2010, with the official US launch coming last month. The developers approached Historic New England while seeking partners in US cities that could provide images to add to the US map.
Having launched a new website in May 2010, the Boston-based organization was already working to get more of its collection on-line and visible to the public. It was “a really good fit,” Dwiggins said, “and a really good way to show some of the materials that we’ve been digitizing in a very new way that would help make the connection to the community.”
To get started, Historic New England has added around 100 photos to the site, focusing on Greater Boston, though they hope to expand over time to share a larger portion of their collection.
That will take a while, Dwiggins said. The organization has around 450,000 photographs and negatives in its collection, with photo files for hundreds of cities and towns across New England.
“Getting the entire collection online could be an ultimate goal,” Dwiggins said, “but it’s going to take years and years and years to do, if it ever happens, because there are just so many things.”
Some of the photos currently uploaded are matched up with the Google Street View so site visitors can immediately compare locations then and now. Others are not, and many can’t be because they were taken from angles incompatible with the way Google photographs streets for its maps.
Dwiggins said his own work on the project had enriched his understanding of how the city has changed over time. He was taken by surprise, he said, while matching a Google Street View with a period photograph of Haymarket Square that showed the area when it was a true square, surrounded in the photo by several buildings, of which only one remains today.
“Particularly in parts of the city like that, that have been so drastically remade over the years by urban renewal and by various development and so forth, it’s really interesting to ... understand how that happened over time,” Dwiggins said.
Dwiggins said HistoryPin has also released an application for Android-based smartphones and will soon have one for the iPhone that will allow users to overlay a historic photo over the view right in front of them through the phone’s camera .
HistoryPin also encourages users to upload their own personal photos, video, audio, and written reminiscences to enrich the project and the user experience. And the site is a way that potentially Historic New England could connect with local residents to expand its own collections.
“We’re always talking to people about what material they have that documents the history of the area and how we can help preserve that,” Dwiggins said, “and I think anything that helps get conversations about that sort of thing going is definitely a worthwhile project.”
Dwiggins said that so far the organization has received positive feedback from the public on the project through social-networking sites such as Twitter, where followers of the @HistoricNE feed have thanked the group for introducing them to the project.
Historic New England hopes HistoryPin can be a “gateway into the collection,” Dwiggins said, “where we’re thinking that people will discover some materials that way and then will realize that we have a lot more things also available and will come into the collection that way.”
Email Jeremy C. Fox at email@example.com.
(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)