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A Map of San Francisco, in 13,000 Photos

 
Addictive website lets visitors see the city as it was, where it was

When Dan Vanderkam moved to San Francisco in 2007 to work at Google, he became fascinated with his new city’s history, listening to local podcasts on the subject and digging into the San Francisco Public Library’s online repository of old pictures.

But frustrated by search limitations and spurred by research he did on one specific photo of his neighborhood, he had an idea. Why not put at least some of the library’s 40,000 digitized images on a map?

And so he did. Last week, Vanderkam, a software engineer, and Raven Keller, a Web designer and Vanderkam’s girlfriend, released Old SF, a Web site that has placed around 13,000 of the library’s photos on a Google map, with a slider that lets users change the time period of the viewable images.

The images stretch from the 1850s — you can see a picture of the bucolic South Park from 1853, for instance, with nary a start-up or food truck — to 2000.

Already, thanks to word of mouth and local blogs, the site has received over 50,000 visitors and more than half a million clicks on locations.

“People in S.F. really enjoy their history and really enjoy their Web sites, so it’s a nice combination,” said Vanderkam, who moved to the New York office of Google last fall.

The library is thrilled by the site, as it lacks the resources to embark on such an effort on its own. Currently, the library has digitized only 2 percent of its estimated two million photos.

“The idea for us is to get more content out there that people can create new things from,” said Christina Moretta, photo curator at the library.

Working in fits and starts since 2009, Mr. Vanderkam first had to test whether the library’s photos had enough data around location and dates for the map to work, eliminating those that did not. Then he had to figure out exactly how he could place the rest.

“There turned out to be not so many exact addresses,” he said, so he eventually boiled the locations down to intersections.

As popular as Old SF already is — “This is really cool,” cooed the de Young Museum on Twitter — it is not the only one of its ilk. Historypin, created by We Are What We Do, a nonprofit London, has in partnership with Google been working with institutions globally to map historical pictures. It started up officially this July; images from the San Francisco library will be available there in about six months.

Vanderkam and Keller said they were delighted by the passionate following their side project has attracted. Vanderkam said he was especially pleased with the notion of historic maps as a procrastination tool; some people, he said, have likened the site to “a rabbit hole or a vampire sucking their time.”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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