While still a work in progress, Pastmapper exploits the best aspect of digital history, its interactivity. Because the platform was launched from San Francisco, most of its information now focuses on that city. The Pastmapper Main Page states “Current available listings” as including 1852 San Francisco, 1960 Minneapolis, 1966 Boston, 1966 San Francisco, and 1967 Oakland but provides no links to any of those maps.
The 1853 San Francisco trial posted on the Pastmapper website uses transcribed information from the 1852 A.W. Morgan & Company’s San Francisco City Directory and takes the user to a San Francisco map with dozens of placemarkers. Some placemarkers open photos and other images, other placemarkers do not. Toggling between 1853 and 2012 Google maps of San Francisco creates an easy visual comparison. When the user toggles between the two maps, streets and topographical features change, but data points remain the same, giving the user a unique view of how the city has evolved over the past century and a half. Changes in the city’s land mass between 1853 and 2012 mirror other online geographic comparisons such as a recent one after Hurricane Sandy that contrasted an 18th-century map with a current one.
Researchers may appreciate the visual mapping of history and the clear color distinction between people and businesses. The visual impact of information like this is easy to understand and is a great alternative to reading a listing or directory, a task which quickly becomes tedious and confusing. Pastmapper enables users to switch between years to see how one specific section has changed over time. Additionally, users can click on individual business types (15 in total) and gain an understanding of how many and where those business were located. The Google map platform allows users to zoom in and out and move around, a great tool for street-level examination and quick navigation.
However, since only 35.6% of the 1852 directory was geotagged, Pastmapper is not yet ready for academic use. Too much information is missing. In addition, the business category “other” is not defined and offers no explanation why. This website did not clearly define why some business types were classified together and others stood on their own. While one can assume “dry goods, books, stationery and household items” were lumped together because a store may sell all four items, it is not clear who demarked the boundaries. Was it the directory or the Pastmapper transcribers? In addition, while the color coding distinctions were based on whether an entry was a “business” (blue) or “people” (green), it was not effective. The “people” classification can be found in “boarding houses and hotels,” “saloons, restaurants, entertainment,” “groceries and provisions, produce, butchers and bakeries” and others. Moreover, business classifications that show green markers also show blue ones. Therefore, the distinction between colors and business types becomes meaningless.
Finally, differences between the 1853 and 2011 maps are not readily apparent. The difference is on the shoreline and not the information keyed in. For example, Miss Bella Livingston is listed as living on Dupont Avenue, Miss Bella Livingston during both time periods. Considering the 158 year difference, it is doubtful that this is the same person.
At the same time, the maps help users compare changes such as damage to businesses, homes, and cities in different natural disasters throughout a city’s history. A business that may have stood near the water at an earlier point in time uses the same address but stands further offshore some 200 years later.
Overall, Pastmapper is a great tool but its usefulness for academic research will only be found once it amasses more information and classification of that information is clarified. Pastmapper contains a great deal of carefully entered metadata with few visuals. Clicking on “Random Page” takes users to more metadata with links, none of which resulted in any images. Pastmapper has a lot of potential, but it also has a long way to go to engage online users. It needs a more welcoming home or main page, visuals that draw in users and show them what Pastmapper has to offer if they set up an account, and simpler representations of metadata. It also needs more information to make the trails more productive. Once it ingests more information, Pastmapper has the potential to organize that data and become a more effective research application.
-Bonnie Gordon, Jackie Rider and Lynda Van Wart