USF's Museum Blog

Open-source databases, podcasts and lectures: How a local historical society stays local but reaches far

by Andrew Armstrong (MA, 2018)
As a recent expat Midwesterner, living in the Bay Area for less than a full calendar year, my awareness and knowledge of the city of San Francisco was little more than my commute to campus, and the Golden Gate Bridge. I wanted to change that, and learn as much as I could about my surrounding and the city I now live in.
Therefore in Summer 2018 I decided to intern at the Western Neighborhoods Project
here in San Francisco. Founded in 1999, the Western Neighborhoods Project is a local historical society “that preserves and shares the history and culture of the neighborhoods in western San Francisco.” They primarily work with images from all possible kinds of photographic media and upload the images to an open source
website: http://opensfhistory.org/. All of the images in the database are from donations or loans from various private collections, allowing the greater public access to images of San Francisco from the 1850s to the 1970s that otherwise would be gathering dust in someone’s closet.
Although the organization has a squad of immensely knowledgeable local experts ranging from specializations such as Golden Gate Park, to the public transportation systems, not even they can identify and describe every image that is accessioned. This is the beauty of the open-source system shines as anyone (with verification) can add valuable information to an otherwise unknown photograph. As of August 2018, there were more than 34,000 images uploaded to the site, though over 100,000 images remain to be processed.
WNP blog photo 1 copy

WNP’s squad of immensely knowledgeable local experts, including Woody Bounty (fifth from left) and USF alumna Nicole Meldahl (sixth from left).

I primarily worked with Woody, the organization’s charismatic founder and chairman, who is usually spotted with his signature fedora, or with one of the various expert volunteers filling out descriptions and captions for scanned images before they were uploaded to the site. This entailed figuring out when was the image taken, where is it and who or what is in the image. Despite my complete ignorance of the San Francisco area, after sifting through thousands of images of all around San Francisco from the Gold Rush to the ’70s even I began to develop an internal map within my head.
WNP blog photo 4 copy

WNP pub crawl

Besides their massive photograph collections, the WNP actively creates events for members and the local community throughout the year. One of these is Woody’s weekly podcast you can find here or their podcast archives here. Topics range from famous individuals to landmarks or memorable events in San Francisco and have built quite the following. Along with podcasts the WNP often conducts neighborhood “walks and talks” as well as quarterly magazine publications, lectures and even “pub crawls” from historians, authors and other subject matter experts.

The WNP is a small, intimate organization that is closely tied to its local community. The dedication from an all-volunteer force has created an impressive online database of historical San Francisco as well as becoming a notable fixture in the SF neighborhoods. The remainder of the +100,000 objects yet to be uploaded is ever-growing, but with the hard work of the small number yet skilled volunteers it can be accomplished. Stop by their office on Balboa Street, I’m sure Woody would be more than happy to show you around and hand you a brochure or two!
WNP blog photo 3 copy

Woody leading a history walk in San Francisco.

To see what OpenSFHistory has to offer click here.

To learn more about the University of San Francisco’s graduate museum studies program
All photos courtesy of Western Neighborhoods Project

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