Bringing History to the Future: How Libraries Are Reinventing Photo Collections

Libraries are using new technologies to are breathing new life into their digital photo collections. At the Future of Libraries 8.0 conference in San Francisco, librarians from the San Jose Public Library and the San Francisco Public Library discussed how they're using geocoding, crowdsourcing, and augmented reality with their digital photo archives.

Scan Jose: The San Jose Public Library

The San Jose Public Library wanted to take their photo collection to the streets. So they did — literally — by creating an augmented reality browser called Scan Jose that takes users on a historic walking tour of downtown San Jose.  Augmented reality is a technology that couples physical reality with computer-generated imagery. In recent years, it has become a popular feature in mobile apps and browsers.

With Scan Jose open on your mobile phone or browser, you can view historic images from the collections of the San Jose Public Library and the Sourisseau Academy while actually visiting the locations those pictures were originally taken in. The San Jose Public Library encourages users to write comments and add to the collective history of the city. To use Scan Jose, simply enter on your smartphone or tablet browsers (iOS, Android, Blackberry, or Windows Mobile). Of course, you'll have to actually be physically in the city of San Jose to get the full effect.

San Francisco Public Library History

San Francisco Public LibraryThe San Francisco Public Library's History Center has been digitizing its Historical Photograph Collection for 15 years. The collection totals to about 2 million photos, but only a fraction of that have actually been digitized. Last year, the librarians at the History Center were at a crossroads with what to do with the historical photo database. Should they keep adding to the database? Should they revamp it? It turned out there were some history nerds (and proficient software coders) who created some very cool projects for the program. 

A former Google employee and history buff, Dan Vanderkam, wanted to do more with the photo collection so he took matters into his own hands. With Old S.F., Vanderkam associated latitudes and longitudes to the 13,257 images in the photo collection. This process, called geocoding, allowed Vanderkamp to align the images to a modern-day Google Map. The result is an easy-to-use map that lets you explore how neighborhoods in San Francisco once looked. Even better? It is completely open source so those with the technical chops can contribute.

Another crowdsourced project from the History Center's archives is the digitization of the San Francisco 1905 Sanborn Insurance Maps. Over 400 history enthusiasts digitized hundreds of Sanborn maps to match to current San Francisco maps. You can see the project at

The best part about these projects is that it required no expenses on the part of the San Francisco Public Library. They simply advertised the projects via social media and people got excited and wanted to participate. The librarians at both SJPL and SFPL encourage other libraries to explore other ways to present their digital photo archives. You never know what a local history buff/programmer might come up with!

For more on geocoding, watch a replay of TechSoup for Libraries' Geocoding for Legislative Advocacy webinar.

Ginny Mies, content curator

TechSoup Global

Image: San Francisco Public Library, vasta

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.