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Archives used to generate Google map of NYC circa 1900

Tue 12 Jul 2016

NYC 1870s

A small team of creative coders have released a Google Street View map that provides comprehensive photographic views of New York City in the late 1800 / early 1900s.

Dan Vanderkam collaborated with the New York Public Library to access over 80,000 of its archival photographs of the city. He took the pictures from the Millstein collection of the library then used geo-coding to plot them into an interactive map.

The project is online and includes sites in all five boroughs of the city, plus many locations on Long Island and New Jersey as well. By zooming in to the map and clicking on a specific site, users can select a series of photos coded to that geographic location. The available photo offers a view of a specific block or intersection, and if there is more than one photo of the same view at different times, you can track the changes to a favorite location. These photographs were previously available online, but the interactive map is a user-friendly alternative to working through 80,000 individual photographs to find a specific location. The library digitized the photos itself, but Vanderkam led a small team to create the interactive map project, creating a new method of accessing photographs for the public at large.

The team went through the archived photographs, geo-coding each one, assigning a latitude and longitude to create an individual plot point for each image on the map. They also worked to standardize the photos, reducing large borders on some, separating multiple small images on others. Many of the images also contained typewritten text on the back, specifying the location represented in the picture. The developers used a custom-trained Ocropus model to extract the text and standardize it for use in the geo-location project. Vanderkam also spearheaded a similar project in San Francisco several years ago, using resources from the San Francisco library archives. He has made the source code for the project available on github.

The photographs in the collection were taken by many different people, but the library credits the bulk of the original work to Percy Loomis Sperr, who spent much of his professional career documenting the changes in NYC from 1920-1940. His efforts alone are responsible for an estimated 30,000 pictures, representing close to half of the entire collection.


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