Friday, September 21, 2012

Web site/app review: Historypin

Historypin is an online resource ( presenting a wide array of user-submitted photographs, videos, audio clips, and stories and  in a geo-spatial format using Google Maps. Founded in 2010, the Historypin web site and mobile phone apps present materials principally organized by their relationship to specific locations. For example, photographs of an event taking place in my home town of DeKalb, Illinois would be available via a "pin" (link) appearing at DeKalb's location on a Google Map.

Photographs appear to be much more common than other types of materials.

A variety of individuals and institutions have submitted materials to Historypin. These include individuals posting items relating to weddings, birthday parties, reunions, etc., - as well as museums and archives submitting materials from their collections.

The Historypin interface allows users an opportunity to search for materials by date and keyword via the main map interface. For example, a search using the keyword "soccer" revealed a photograph collection from St. Louis University, dated 1965, relating to that institution's soccer team, as well as 1975 photographs of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and the Brazilian soccer player Pele. 

Many materials in Historypin may be of interest to historians, but the site will likely prove frustrating. All of the resources discovered by my limited review presented very limited metadata/descriptive information. Materials  submitted by archives, museums, and professionally-staffed institutions generally included (in my review of available materials) more information, but generally less than one would hope to find in a visit to an archive, museum, or library itself. Resources submitted by individuals or non-professional groups generally included very little or no metadata, aside from a title and perhaps a date.

The archive/museum/library materials that I examined often were accompanied by contact information for their home institution, which could enable an interested scholar to track down additional information via email. But my review of individual submissions revealed no such contact information for individual contributors. These are then materials presented in geographical and (usually) temporal context, but lacking virtually all other types of helpful information.

I also wondered about the long-term status of materials appearing on Historypin. Might an institution or individual adding a single item or collection to Historypin withdraw those materials at some future date? If a scholar or other researcher wishes to refer to those materials in a publication, blog post, or in-person presentation, how can s/he be sure that they will still be available in the future? What if Historypin goes out of business or experiences a catastrophic technical failure.

These questions affect a scholar's willingness to use/cite materials found via Historypin in a publication or other type of presentation requiring formal documentation. 

In the end Historypin is a positive development in that it brings a wealth of historical materials to the attention of the vast public using the web. In this regard it is sure to stimulate historical thinking and discussion on a number of levels. But its emergence raises a number of problems and questions for users interested in more than casual browsing of available resources.

1 comment:

  1. I recommend this Timeline Eons app, a graphic representation of the entire natural and human history: