Here are five of the most compulsively browse-able digital history sites I encountered this year. I’ll share five more on Monday.
The Kindred Britain project takes records of 30,000 notable people of British descent, living across 1,500 years of history, and lets you visualize how they’re related—by blood, by shared historical time, or by geography. You can search pairs you think of yourself, or explore some suggested connections (George Washington and George III; Charles I and Oliver Cromwell). This is the kind of historical project that could only be executed digitally, and it’s gorgeous.
Old Maps Online indexes collections of historical maps from several institutions, and lets you search them by place. A search for “Philadelphia” reveals, in the right-hand rail, thumbnails of maps spanning 250 years and taking a variety of approaches to geographical data: city plans, railroads, a pictorial map of the grounds of the 1876 International Exposition. Clicking on a map will bring you to its page on its original archival site, where you can zoom in and see more detail.
Small Town Noir is built on a trove of discarded midcentury mugshots from New Castle, Penn. What differentiates this archive from the many other Tumblrs that catalog ephemeral historical photographs is the research that author Diarmid Mogg has put into each mug shot, tapping articles from the town’s local newspaper, the New Castle News. The entries tell tiny human histories, against the backdrop of an industrial town where industry was on the way out. Two entries, selected almost at random, show how rich those histories can be: Sidney Fell, arrested for sodomy in 1960; John Saul, nabbed for disorderly conduct in 1957.
The Digital Public Library of America, which launched this year, is a platform that taps records from local and state-level digital repositories, allowing you to search many different databases at once. You can find items within the five and a half million records that make up the DPLA using simple keywords (here are more than 9,000 items related to Christmas); geographical search (here’s a search for items related to Philadelphia); or time period search (here’s the timeline of all DPLA items). DPLA searches often lead me to smaller digital archives I never knew existed, making the platform the ultimate historian’s rabbit-hole.
The digital Wunderkammer (literally, “wonder cabinet,” or cabinet of curiosities) put together by the Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library in Stockholm allows you to search its archives of medical art by scientific area, year of publication, artistic technique, and the emotion that the image is likely to provoke. That last set of tags is the most fascinating. Depending on your tastes and purposes, you could look for images that are “scary,” “strange,” “fascinating,” “instructive,” or six other kinds of feeling. This is a great way to approach this sort of sensitive historical material, which can sometimes turn stomachs if encountered without warning.
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