Mapping History

Have you ever wondered who used to live in your old house? Or tracked the demographic changes in your city?

Ithaca homes

The History Center in Ithaca, New York has created HistoryForge, a web application that combines information from U.S. census records, Sanborn maps, and other records into an interactive framework of human and spatial relationships that illustrate what communities looked like and how they evolved over time. Through a grant from the NHPRC, the HistoryForge is engaging the public in the development of a full-featured web environment that will provide a new way of exploring local history. Dedicated citizen archivists are transforming hand-written census records of Ithaca from 1900 to 1940 (along with city directories) into a database that can be used to explore ethnicity, professions, homeownership, and many other elements that defined and represented the lives of ordinary people in the early 20th century.

Sanborn Map of Ithaca

They have also interpreted and entered construction information describing 4,500 buildings from a mosaic layer of Sanborn maps into a Database of the Built Environment. Capturing the street address for each person in the census and the street address of every building creates a dynamic link that opens up new ways of looking at both kinds of information. The project will expand and enhance public engagement by enlisting additional volunteers and a broader range of participants; by encouraging the public to explore local history through active use of the application; and, by eliciting, storing and displaying user-generated content. Secondary analysis is facilitated by search results exported as CSV files for use in spreadsheets, cartographic programs, and other analytic tools.

The History Center in Tompkins County now designs historic neighborhood tours using data from HistoryForge.

HistoryForge is open source and is being designed so that it could be adapted by any community with historical maps and untapped information resources such as the census.

To find out how this project came to be, check out the

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