When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to do with my grandmother was to go through old photo albums and listen to her tell stories about the people and places in them. That was probably my first introduction to history, and it made it personal for me in a way that has shaped my view of the subject ever since. Historypin is an exciting tool that allows you to share your stories and photos with the whole world, and vice versa. The core concept is a map of the world, onto which members can “pin” photos, videos, or sound files, along with a date, location, and description or story. These items can be grouped in collections, around a single topic, or tours, where they are structured around a narrative.
There are three basic ways to interact with the site—Exploring, Adding, or Curating. Explorers can search items geographically, chronologically, or by topic. You can also search via Google maps, and if the photo is a street view, you can superimpose it on the present day view. Anyone can explore, once you create a free account you can add and curate (create collections and tours). Account holders can also create their own channels, where everything they’ve added or curated can be found. The site isn’t geared solely towards individuals—Historypin also works with schools and local projects, in an attempt to achieve their goal of involving as wide an audience as possible. They also hope to encourage community feeling, spark inter-generational conversation, and conserve global archives, making them available to a wider audience and serving as a valuable resource for schools and universities. They are currently working with over 100 libraries, museums, and archives, helping them to reach a broader audience and experiment with new and innovative ways of sharing their collections.
As a tool of public history, Historypin is admirable for several reasons. Firstly, it is incredibly inclusive. Anyone can sign up for an account and add their images and stories to the map. The site is easy to navigate, and uploading content is a fairly simple and enjoyable process. You can also personalize your channel, changing the color scheme, filling out an online profile, etc. It’s a process reminiscent of Facebook or MySpace, and I’ll admit it, it’s fun. This simple step makes the site approachable to non-academics; you can also link your channel to outside websites—blogs, Facebook, professional sites, etc. This ease of communication and connectivity is something that I think is really valuable in public history, and will only become more so with time. After all, who cares how great something is if no one can find it?
Of course, allowing anyone to contribute can lessen the legitimacy of the information. Similarly to Wikipedia, the site is self-policing—if members see inaccurate information, they can click “Dispute”, and the Historypin team will swoop in to save the day! (Meaning they will check the “pin” for accuracy, and either correct or remove it.) Another point in its favor so far as legitimacy is concerned is that a large number of members are actually archives, museums, libraries, or educational organizations. Historypin provides a number of incentives to get such entities involved, beyond the possibility of a broader audience base. They also provide free digital tools, like an uploader, a mobile App, and games. (The game is a work in progress, but we are assured that it’s coming!)
As a historian, I find this tool quite useful, as long as its limitations and drawbacks are kept in mind. For example, if I’m doing a project on Irish families in Greenwich Village, I can use the map and search for images of those streets that I know from previous research were predominantly Irish. If I’m looking for images from a certain time period, I can adjust the timeline parameters. Check your sources—see who pinned the picture you’re looking at, and determine on a case-by-case basis if you trust them or not. Use your head—if something looks wrong to you, it probably is. Find another source and check it out.
This is a great tool to get more people interested in history, as well as collecting content from around the world. It relates to people on a personal level, because they are photographs and personal stories, and because the average web-user can interact with and create the content. It’s useful, and it’s a lot of fun—go scope it out!
Historypin was created by the self-described “behavior change” non-profit WeAreWhatWeDo in conjunction with Google. They did a beta-launch in 2010, and a subsequent global launch in 2011.