Hats Off to a Fabulous Photo Website

For years, we’ve used the photo website of the San Francisco History Room in the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) and found some great photos we’ve used in displays at our San Francisco Railway Museum and in our member newsletter, *Inside Track* (always with permission, of course).
It’s a good site for the technology available at that time, but now comes a labor of love by two San Franciscans that makes the SFPL’s historic photo collection much more useful.


A sample photo picked off the OldSF.org website: a Muni streetcar turning onto Geary from Market Street, 1914 or so. SF Public Library Photo.

Dan Vanderkam and Raven Keller put together a fabulous site called Old SF. It uses geotags (they’ve applied almost 13,000 to the library’s photos so far) to plot the location of the photos on a Google map. You can select the time period you want to visit (any duration between 1850 and 2000!) and different sized red dots show you how many photos were taken in a specific location. Of course, you can zoom in and out on the map to navigate across the city. Clicking on a dot brings up all the thumbnails from a location; clicking on any thumbnail brings up a larger photo.
The caveat here is that the size of all photos is limited by design. They’re not large enough for most uses (but tolerable on a website if you don’t expect a lot of detail). If you really want a photo, though, you just click on the Library link in the lower right and you’re taken directly to the SFPL website where you can order a full-size scan or print of the image.
Our fedoras are off to Dan and Raven for this great service to San Francisco history. We hope there will be a way on one of these sites, though, to allow “crowdsourcing” to get dates right.
For example, the photo at Geary and Market illustrating this post, which we grabbed at random from the map, is dated “August 1911” on the SFPL site but the presence of that Muni streetcar at that spot makes that impossible, since Muni didn’t begin operation until December 28, 1912, the line wasn’t extended onto Market until June 25, 1913, and that class of streetcar didn’t begin appearing on Muni tracks until 1914.
If the SFPL offered a comment box on each photo, they might get a lot of valuable information, just as they do now from several of our members who review and label their transit photos the old fashioned way: at tables in the History Room itself!
But no grousing intended. This is a big step forward. If you’re a history buff, check out oldsf.org, but warning: you’ll be there awhile!


Comments: 1

  1. Wow. Great site—-I’ve been using the library’s site, but it can be a royal pain in the rear going from picture to picture (on the other hand, try finding historic photos of San Diego, or Honolulu–they’re out there, but not even anywhere near this degree of quantity and online access).
    What’s also nice is that after you’ve clicked on one dot, it turns black so you can find where you were—if your first photo was in a cluster.’
    On the other hand, how many pictures does one person need of the construction and interior of the Civic Center Exhibition Hall, beneath Civic Center Plaza? I’d never seen it and three photos cured me of my curiosity, but there were several dozen there, if you’re looking for a particular angle on the hole in the ground.

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