Tufts University has a web site that will interest most anyone researching ancestors or studying history in the city of Boston. "Boston Streets" combines city directories, maps, and photographs to tell the story of Boston over the last 160 years.
The web site provides zoomable maps from 1844, 1867, 1874, 1898, 1928, 1950, and 2001. These maps are combined with searchable city directories from 1845, 1855, 1865, 1870, 1872, 1875, 1885, 1905, and 1925. While these directories are only a sample of the many directories printed over the years, you will find more than 2 million unique entries. You may be able to find your ancestors listed in a city directory, then plot their location on the maps. Older maps often showed ward boundaries—very handy for anyone working with Boston census schedules.
"Boston Streets: Mapping Directory Data" also provides some of the oldest photographs in America. The Tufts Digital Library has catalogued all the images and extensive research on the buildings, tenants, and locations depicted in the images. One of the interesting studies is to look at the streets and the residents before and after the great fire of 1872. You can also watch the progress of the landfill now known as Back Bay, one of the earliest landfill projects in a major city. Of course, you can also find many well-known residents, including Alexander Graham Bell.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the web site is called "Cowpaths." This is a geospatial mapping tool designed for the "Boston Streets" site. It is named after the urban legend that the streets of Boston were laid out over the paths that cows used to walk when the city was young and now accounts for their general disorder and "crookedness." The story is not true but Cowpaths was created to help chart a course through the resources and place them in a context of time and space.
Cowpaths is a map-based tool for discovering image and directory information and then plotting it on a map. You can also discover names, occupations, and images in Cowpaths and find them in the directories and images either in the Tufts Digital Library or at the Bostonian Society. Cowpaths even allows users to define their own data layers, query the data and have their results mapped on any number of historical maps.
All in all, this is a powerful and very useful site. It is a bit complex to learn. However, if you have an interest in Boston's history, I am sure you will find the learning curve to be an excellent investment of your time.
"Boston Streets" may be found at http://dca.tufts.edu/features/bostonstreets.