Rachel Corbman, Nicole Greenhouse, Jennifer Joyce
Openness and collaboration are routinely cited as the key values of the Digital Humanities (DH) community. A recent example of a project that aimed to put these ideals into practice is Brad Thompson’s team up with the graduate students in Cathy Hajo’s “Creating Digital History” course in order to construct an interactive visualization of a block in Greenwich Village. A seemingly unlikely collaboration, Brad Thompson graduated from the University of Texas- Austin in 2001 with a BS in Advertising. After holding corporate jobs in marketing and business development for a decade, Thompson decided combine his technical know-how with his passion for history by developing an innovative new platform known as Pastmapper.
Launched in December 2011, Thompson describes Pathmapper as “platform for organizing data using the visual language of online maps to describe the world of the past.” The prototype of this platform takes San Francisco (Thompson’s home since 2005) as its subject and layers census data onto a historical maps in order to represent San Francisco as it was in 1853, 1914, and today.
Similar in design, the “Mapping 60 years of Greenwich Village” project has the ambitious end goal of placing detailed data from five federal censuses (1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940) onto historically accurate maps for the corresponding year. For now, Thompson is working with Cathy Hajo’s and her students to render 9th street, “a one-block thoroughfare in the heart of a vibrant and old neighborhood in Manhattan.”
In keeping with the overarching theme of Professor Hajo’s course, this collaboration offered students the unique opportunity to contribute to a larger DH initiative that also dovetailed with their individually designed digital projects on Greenwich Village history. To complete this work, the class divided itself into six groups representing each of the censuses between 1880-1940. (In case that math isn’t adding up for you, it’s worth mentioning that much of the 1890 census was destroyed in a 1921 fire.) Each group was responsible for transcribing data from their census into an excel sheet. The fields of data that were culled from each census included: street name, house number, name, race/color, sex, occupation, industry, school attendance, literacy, able to write, place of birth, father’s place of birth, mother’s place of birth, year immigrated to US, owns or rents, and speaks English. After this task was completed, group members were asked to collaborate on a series of blog posts to promote Pastmapper’s Greenwich Village project and as a platform to share their experiences, positive or otherwise.
As a group, those of us responsible for the 1900 census have generally favorable feedback to report. Our major source of ambivalence was the inevitably time consuming nature of the data entry. However, we felt this to be justified both in terms of Pastmapper’s larger objective and also because the data entry proved to be informative within itself. As we entered line after line of data, we watched the 1900 census transform from a stale bureaucratic document to a multilayered imagining of life on 9th street at the turn of the century. We hope the “Mapping 60 years of Greenwich Village” project, once completed, will be similarly engaging for others in the DH community and more casual browsers alike.