Museums and the Web

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City of Philadelphia Department of Records

Introduction: is a web-based system for geographic search, display and management of historic photos from Philadelphia’s City Archives. It combines the power of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) with features of traditional digital asset management systems, E-commerce capabilities, and mobile access, but also precise geographically-based search abilities. The software that runs the site is called Sajara and was built by Avencia, an award-winning, Philadelphia-based geographic analysis and software development firm specializing in the creation of innovative location-based software tools.Context: Philadelphia’s City Archives, managed by the City of Philadelphia Department of Records (DoR), contains an estimated 2 million photographs, some dating 1860s, documenting the city’s rich history. Photographers assigned to City departments such as the Departments of Streets, City Transit, and Public Works originally took these photographs in order to document public works projects (new photographs continue to be added to the collection by the Photo Unit, a DoR office charged with capturing a photographic record of the City’s activities). These photographs, while organized by each department could not easily be searched, managed or accessed and were deteriorating very fast. System: The DoR contracted Avencia to develop, a web-based digital asset management system that would enable both management of metadata about the images and public search of the collections based on location, time and keywords. The key innovation was the addition a geographic location for every photo for which it could be determined. An interactive map shows the locations of all available photos near an address, intersection, or neighborhood, helping users to identify photos and place historic settings in their current contexts. Thanks to major system updates made by Avencia in 2007, users are now able to interact with the collection more easily: they can add to, tag, and manage assets in their “favorites”; share them with friends via email; easily report errors on the information associated with each asset; request assets to be scanned; and bookmark their queries. The mobile version of was also launched in the fall of 2007, which enables the system to be accessible from most cell phones, handheld computers and other mobile devices. Lastly, thanks to the system’s E-Commerce module, users can purchase prints of the photos, generating revenue for the DoR to support continued digitization of archived images. Through its Archive Manager module, enables administrative functions for the DoR staff to add newly scanned images, geocode photographs, enter descriptions, track use of the system, and quickly find and print images in response to orders placed through the site. Because is a web-based software application, it allows its content to be uploaded, stored, accessed and used by multiple authorized users who might be located in different parts of a building, city or country, in a reliable and timely fashion, saving everyone time and money. All in all, this system leverages Geographic Information Systems technologies to provide the public with increased access to City resources and archivists with robust tools to catalog and manage these assets.Today, interns are adding an average of 2,000 photos to the site per month, with a total to date (1/15/08) of 50,538 photos displayed on The site is visited by thousands of users each month and hundreds of prints have been sold, generating revenue of more than $30,000 to date. The website provides a unique and valuable look at the history of one of America’s oldest and most historically rich cities. Most importantly, it has enabled valuable historic photos to be accessible to the public, researchers, libraries, archivists, students, and City employees alike, which was extremely difficult, or even impossible before the creation of preservation of these assets is central in this project as well. Each scanned negative gets re-stored in an acid-free envelope. Moreover, in addition to placing the photo online, the interns convert the original scan of the photograph into high resolution and medium resolution versions. They store the medium resolution on a server while the high resolution images are burned onto CDs which are then labeled and carefully stored on shelves at the archives. Each photograph now exists in three different digital forms, ensuring that the image is safely preserved and easily accessible. What differentiates this system from other similar systems?Historic images such as those on are inherently geographic, capturing the look and feel of a specific location in the past. The acknowledgement and incorporation of this fact is one of’s most innovative and unique features. While many digital asset management (DAM) applications exist, and other archives have digitized their collections to provide wider access, very few if any systems offer the ability to search for map images based on a precise address, intersection, or place name. This feature both increases users’ ability to locate images in an area of interest and facilitates historic research and inquiry in a way that traditional DAM applications have not. Other significant 2007 Updates: The site was entirely redesigned and re-launched in 2007 to enable the integration of more features, the launch of a mobile version and provide users with a more flexible and interactive experience with the website, as stated above. Some highlights of recent updates are: In April, an RSS publication feature was added to What's RSS? It is another web standard that is typically used by newspapers and blogs to provide syndication of articles. Indeed, numerous visitors requested to be able to save their searches and also be able to monitor when new photos were added to their area of the city. Avencia’s developers thought that if every search could be turned into an RSS feed, users would be able to use the RSS readers that are built into the Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers to monitor when the photos in their area of interest are changing. But Avencia went one step further and added the latitude and longitude coordinates of each photo with a GeoRSS tag. GeoRSS is simple but powerful. And it is supported by Google Maps, so users can now take a PhillyHistory search and paste it into a Google Maps search box and see the historic photos in Google Maps.In October, Google Earth support was added as well. Assets stored in can now be displayed in Google Earth three different ways. First, every photo with a location now has a button that says 'Show in Google Earth'. Second, the first 100 records of any search can be shown as a group.Last but not least, in November the system’s map control was replaced with an open source toolkit called OpenLayers. This change made the map in more flexible and dynamic, enabling users to use it as a powerful search tool. Users can now click on the map to re-center the search area they are looking at, as well as pan, zoom in and out of the map with ease, thus refining their geographical searches. OpenLayers offers this flexibility by using the web mapping service (WMS) standard defined by the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC). Statistics:142,468 unique visitors in 2007 compared to 29,453 in 2006 (started tracking in March 06) = 384% increase 473,118 total visits (includes returning visitors) in 2007compared to 94,022 in 2006 (start tracking in March 06) = 403% increase 80,080,558 hits in 2007 compared to 16,694,386 in 2006 (started tracking in March 06) = 379% increase These statistics show the significance and impact that such web-based systems might have on organizations that have decided to move their collections (or part of their collections) to a web-based platform. Prior to the launch of, the Philadelphia’s City Archives received approximately 100 visitors per year looking for images. From an administrative perspective, the system has substantially improved access to imagery that, for all practical purposes, was inaccessible to the public. It has raised the profile of the Philadelphia’s City Archives and attracted new funding by grant-making agencies and philanthropic organizations. But its greatest impact may be the effect it seems to have on both the memories of the people who lived in the times in which the photos were taken or on their descendants who are researching their family’s past. Users’ Feedback:11/24/06:Very interesting site. I am a doctoral student working on image indexing and image use at Drexel. This is a massive undertaking and one that is sure to find lots of interest among native Philadelphians. Kudos!3/01/07:This is the best use of taxpayer money I’ve heard in a long time. I’d even be willing to pay more taxes if it would speed up the image uploads. I’ve become a junkie. – Chief Editor, Philadelphia City Paper8/07/07:Your site is wonderful and very addictive. As someone who loves Philadelphia and its history, I have the greatest admiration for this endeavor. The photographs of our past are so precious to all present or former city residents. 8/13/, photo archive has been more help than some of the genealogy sites8/29/07:I would personally like to thank Commissioner Decker for a job well done. Philadelphians should be very thankful to you for showing us our past history. Please keep up the good work. I have made a favorite spot to enjoy history.9/28/07:I've been enjoying your website, looking at the old images and finding some valuable information about the history of the commercial waterfront. Thanks so much for making these available on your site, great work and such a great help! 11/11/07:I just want to say that all of you at PhillyHistory are doing a superb job! From the people who do the actual scans, to the programmers who keep the site up & running and everyone in between: ALL of you deserve a good-job-slap-on-the-back. About a year ago, I suggested a feature that allows a search based on recently-added photos. And you did it! won the Philadelphia Magazine’s Best of Philly 2007 award and the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA)’s 2007 Exemplary Systems in Government Distinguished System award.

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