History experiment uses tech to find new stories
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – The photo taken in 1942 shows singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson serenading a sea of black and white workers at Oakland’s Moore Dry Dock Corp., one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s first integrated shipping yards.
In early April, Rue Mapp, whose father was a Moore dockworker, scanned the old picture she’d found at the Oakland Public Library into a computer at the California Historical Society. The image was beamed onto a screen, instantly becoming part of the society’s new experimental exhibit of San Francisco Bay history.
“Moore Dry Dock represented this new economic and social frontier for African Americans to have the chance to prosper and thrive, no longer under the shadow of the Jim Crow South – and my dad did just that,” the 42-year-old Mapp said. “The Robeson photo captured my imagination because he is somewhat of an enigma for my generation. And the photo locates him not only in my hometown, but also at the place my father worked.”
The photograph and Mapp’s family memories were little known pieces of the bay’s history – but in an instant both became part of an academic project blending two of the region’s resources: technology and people.
The 142-year-old historical society may seem an unlikely place for innovation, but its new exhibit is using crowdsourcing – organizing people online to contribute to a project – to find new stories about the bay. Historians hope the technique will help them unlock a richer, deeper historical portrait.
The project is being led by University of California, Los Angeles historian Jon Christensen as part of his work studying the bay’s environmental history.
But the project goes beyond just Christensen’s project, seeking to create an online database of photos and stories from which historians of all stripes can benefit.
“We’re trying to attract a more diverse community to contribute to the sources of history,” Christensen said. “If you don’t like the history that’s been written, tell your own history with us.”
The idea is to augment the traditional source material used by historians – often the story as told by an era’s most powerful people or biggest events. Stories and historical materials from other racial and economic groups were less collected and archived, leaving gaps in the record.
The crowdsourcing project uses a website called Historypin, where anyone with computer access can upload a photo, pin the picture’s location onto a Google map and set a date range for when it was made. Historians at Stanford University are also participating.
The exhibit can be found online under the Historypin “channel” YearoftheBay.org, where they’ll find a map with links to the photographs sorted by geographic area and spanning more than a century of time.
Participation so far has varied from citizens like Mapp to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, which uploaded startling images of the destruction of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.
But luring people to contribute source material is already paying dividends. After Mapp uploaded her photos, she and Christensen talked about her family’s history.
“My own family arrived here in search of greater economic opportunity, and the bay provided that,” said Mapp, an environmentalist who runs a nonprofit called Outdoor Afro, which explores African American connections to nature. “Then over time the bay became a source of leisure for my family.”
Christensen hopes the project will not only provide new source material for a book, but help solve mysteries surrounding some of the items already in the historical society’s collection.
On one wall of the exhibit hang photos of unidentified Native Americans on Alcatraz Island taken during the Indian takeover of the infamous prison from 1969 to 1971.
Christensen said the subjects’ names were not included in the photo information. But he hopes posting the images to Historypin might help catch the attention of family members or others who can identify them.
“This is an experiment and we don’t know how it will work, but we want to find out whether crowdsourcing can be useful for scholarship,” Christensen said.