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Library Group Announces Grant to Support
A Revolutionary "GeoHistory" Network

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (April 2005)--The Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) announced that it has received a $50,000 award from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to plan the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network, an online resource that will allow users to explore Philadelphia through a series of interlinked maps, property information, photographs, and historical data.

"This project has enormous and exciting implications for researchers as well as for area residents, tourists, and the tourism professionals who serve them," observed PACSCL chairman David Moltke-Hansen, who is also the president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. "Users will eventually be able to call up a digital map of Philadelphia for a given year, point a cursor at a particular spot, and call up related information, such as the history of that building, photographs of it, the account books of a business that once owned it, or records identifying residents. Researchers will also be able to move backward and forward in time to examine land use or follow shifts in residence or employment patterns. We are deeply grateful to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for their support for this project."

The GeoHistory Network will have as its foundation the extraordinary work of two PACSCL partners, the City of Philadelphia Department of Records and the Athenæum of Philadelphia. Its goal will be to provide a publicly accessible historical "map" for the Philadelphia region. Using an online Geographic Information System, users will be able to interact with different layers of history - from Civil-War era atlases to turn-of-the-century photographs to the new city map developed by the Department of Records. The project will draw on building information and digital images from the Philadelphia Architects and Buildings Project, which is already available online at The total investment in these two projects to date approaches $10 million.

"As the official record keeper of the city, the Department of Records holds authoritative land records as well as two million photographs documenting the city's history and growth," explains Joan T. Decker, Commissioner. "Our historical land record maps have been scanned and prepared for use in the city's Geographic Information System. As we migrate to fully digital land record keeping, this provides an accurate base for adding multiple layers of geographical information." To this base will be added the resources of photographs, records, and building plans collected by the Philadelphia Architect and Buildings Project, supported by funding from The William Penn Foundation and housed at The Athenæum of Philadelphia, as well as historical data from other PACSCL member libraries and archives.

"This resource will offer an extraordinary research tool for scholars, urban planners, architects and designers, historic site interpreters, tourists, and students," says Bruce Laverty, curator at The Athenæum of Philadelphia and administrator of the planning grant. In this initial demonstration project, Laverty and his team will plan how to integrate a wide range of historical data. They will also gather resources for the Society Hill/Old City neighborhood across its history, and the era of the Civil War across the city. A first step will be inventorying the region's documentary "assets" - determining the collections and resources that will fit into the GeoHistory framework.

"We chose Society Hill and the Civil War for their importance to our community and for the chance to solve particular problems," Laverty explains. "The Society Hill and Old City neighborhoods encompass our best-known historical assets and have the oldest records, and they also show enormous changes over the years -- from rags to riches more than once, and from home-based businesses to industry to condos. These data will let us look at sweeping changes both in land use and in the people who used the buildings."

The years surrounding the Civil War (roughly 1850-1876) include the city's growing preeminence as an industrial powerhouse. They also span the years of the city's consolidation, with its many changes of street names and numberings. "This will be a real test of our ability to correlate two different sets of data about the same place," Decker adds. With additional funding provided by The Phoebe W. Haas Charitable Trust and other donors, data from Civil War-era city directories will also be digitized and included in the GeoHistory Network, adding another layer of historical data. Data arising from a survey of Civil War-related historic sites, supported by a grant from the Heritage Philadelphia Program, will also be incorporated in the project.

A set of Civil War-era city atlases is being scanned and incorporated into the project. Two additional atlases, from 1895 and 1910, will also be scanned. "This gives us a good cross-section of maps of Philadelphia in different stages of its development," says Laverty.

"We've barely scratched the surface of what can be accomplished," comments Derick Dreher, director of the Rosenbach Museum & Library. "The Consortium's 28 member libraries hold a wealth of materials that can be linked and mined in this manner. Maps and photographs are the most obvious types, but letters, diaries, business records, even data about epidemics can be tied in." The project will include a survey of PACSCL member libraries to prioritize collections to be included, and the Consortium will convene a symposium this fall to inform users and get feedback from them. "This is still a new approach to organizing data," observes Dreher, "and we want to encourage researchers to begin to think about their research projects with its capabilities in mind."

For others, the potential future uses are immediately obvious. Says Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia executive director John Gallery, "This is an exciting project that will enable people to gain direct access to a wealth of information electronically while standing right in front of an historic site."

The GeoHistory Network project is one of a set of PACSCL initiatives that contribute to the formation of a Greater Philadelphia Research Collections Network. These initiatives will increase access to, and awareness of, a set of collections that can be thought of as "One Big Library" - a huge rare book and manuscript library with 28 branches in the greater Philadelphia area to support the region's "One Big Campus" of more than 80 colleges and universities.

The initiatives include a program to provide "one-click" access to the online catalogs of all 28 member libraries; another project to provide single-point searching of archival finding aids, digital collections, and online exhibitions; and an assessment of hundreds of thousands of uncataloged manuscripts in the collections of member libraries.

PACSCL's 28 member libraries and archives collect, care for, and share with a world-wide audience collections that, in their depth and variety, comprise an internationally important body of rare and unique materials for students, scholars, and lifelong learners at any level.

Update: Report to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation | Next Steps | Project Web Site and Symposium Proceedings


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