Monday, 7 June 2010

Historypin: Patchwork History

Our deputy editor, Charlotte Crow, reviews a new digital picture archive, Historypin, launched last week.

by Charlotte Crow,

What aims to be ‘the greatest picture story book on Earth’, Historypin, launched in London at the end of last week. The project was created by the social ideas group We Are What We Do in collaboration with Google, the technical and financial facilitator behind a venture that promises to add a new dimension to digital history.

We Are What We Do is an off-shoot of Community Links, a non-profit organisation founded in East London in 2004 to tackle the causes and consequences of social exclusion in fresh and imaginative ways. The aim of this latest project is to stimulate interaction between different generations by seeking positive ways to bring them together: older people by communicating their experiences and stories and younger people by sharing their digital skills.

Historypin is about creating a reason to uncover from attics and garages forgotten old pre-digital photographs of outdoor locations, peopled or not. These can then be scanned and uploaded onto the Historypin website and ‘pinned’ onto Street View via Google Maps along with a date, caption and personal story. Pictures are layered onto modern Street View scenes (the Museum of London launched an App with a similar function for historic stills of the capital on June 2nd) so that users can ‘walk’ down a virtual memory lane exploring how a neighbourhood once looked and gleaning anecdotal details via contributor’s written reminiscences. The idea is to build a vast, random archive of images and human recollections with an interactive dimension. Ideally a young and an old person will have participated jointly in this process and Historypin plans plenty of outreach projects with schools and old people’s homes to get the necessary dialogues going.

Thanks to Google, the capacity for holding material is not an issue. Photographic and local history archives are encouraged to get on board and this may well prove a positive, cost-free way for them to showcase their images (copyright of all material remaining with the owners). Currently the focus is on photographs as the memory pins, though other material such as paintings and drawings can also be tagged. Historypin will develop links with oral history projects with the view to enable audio material to be tagged as well.

With its emphasis on dating and captioning, supervised by a team of moderators, Historypin hopes to increase a broader sense of historical awareness. In airing what commercial archives would consider in many cases to be worthless, mundane pictures, it will help to develop an appreciation for a non-commercial, non-dramatic version of the past that nevertheless can still tell us much.

Yet whatever the potential this endeavour might hold for social and local historians and those wishing to connect with the past, the greater motive of Historypin is to connect people with each other by cultivating curiosity and mutual interest. With a widening divide between young and old in the fast moving digital age and the isolation experienced by many older people in an aging population, this is a positive and worthwhile ambition.

(Trinity Mirror Archive):
- Street party for Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee, Children from Methley Street and Radcot Street, London, June 7th, 1977
- Family on holiday in New York City, Peter and Joan Udell with their children Christopher and Jennifer, January 12th, 1969

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