The New York Public Library (NYPL) is seeking help in a crowdsourcing effort to create a one-stop digital atlas of “old New York.” The project involves the help of software and public labor. The Library is training computers to recognize building shapes and other data on digitized insurance atlases. Via these easy, bite-sized tasks, you can help check the computers’ work and capture other valuable information. The result will be an accurate and detailed database that will help historians, genealogists, and many others explore the geography of the past. The goal is to produce a comprehensive directory of old New York (or, as the folks at NYPL like to think of it, a time machine).
To do it, the NYPL needs to harvest all the fantastic detail from the original maps: building footprints, addresses, construction materials etc. — clues that will help unlock a million stories. With this information organized and searchable, researchers can ask new kinds of questions about history. The project should allow researchers to peel back the layers of the city and replay its growth.
The software scans old maps of the city and uploads them to the Library’s website, where volunteers can inspect the computer’s findings for accuracy before they’re stored in the archives for good. For those interested in helping out, it’s a basic “polishing up” job — but, the creators say, it’s a much-needed polishing. About half a million maps and more than 20,000 atlases will be uploaded. They’re just paper to most eyes — flat, yellowing scrolls with outdated street names and funny fonts. Ben Vershbow, director of NYPL’s digital library, wants to change that perspective. “It would take years to do this sort of fact checking and meticulous work by ourselves. Really, it would be impossible.”
You can learn more about the project at http://buildinginspector.nypl.org/general/about. The project is available at the New York Public Library’s “Building Inspector” web site at http://buildinginspector.nypl.org.