« Back to Collections

Picturing San Francisco: Digital Partnerships with San Francisco Public Library’s Photographs and Maps

San Francisco Public Library
Go to Website

Innovation Summary

Through community partnerships and internal efforts, SFPL greatly increased the profile of its historic photo and map collections, received unprecedented attention from local and national media for those collections, and saw a large increase in awareness of and use of these unique resources.

Problem Statement

SFPL faced a problem - how do we make discovery of our growing digital assets easier? While the public is keenly interested in historical photographs and maps of San Francisco, and the Library’s San Francisco History Center includes an extensive collection, our growing number of digitized photographs from these collections made materials more accessible but not generally well-known in the community and beyond, particularly not beyond the traditional formal and informal research community. In addition, a number of unique large format maps could not be digitized with existing staff and resources. Finally, while the S. F. Historical Photograph Collection of digital images has always been searchable by neighborhood, street, date, building, person's name, and other subjects and keywords from a separate database on the library’s homepage, essential information was still missing, inhibiting the searchability and accessibility of this resource. In order to reach out beyond its traditional audiences of historians, researchers, and current library users to a much broader demographic of people who might not normally use the website or visit the Main Library, SFPL turned to a crowdsoursing approach to identify and enlist the help of geocoding experts and enthusiasts to provide additional key data, thus acquiring additional useful information about the collection and significantly enhance access.


Wider and more versatile digital access to the Library's San Francisco Historical Photograph and Map Collections was developed in a number of new and innovative ways. While existing metadata and search capabilities allowed discovery of much essential information about the Library’s collection of 40,000 digitized historical photographs, the potential for locating these photos in the geographic context of the city had not been explored. However, the need to make these photographs accessible inspired Old S.F., a project to geocode 13,257 images in the collection over a large map of the city. Built by Google employee Dan Vanderkam and designed by Raven Keller, Old S.F. has drawn over 300,000 visitors since its August 2011 launch. Another crowdsourcing project, inspired by the digitization of San Francisco History Center's San Francisco Sanborn Insurance Maps, 1905, capitalizes on local enthusiasts’ enjoyment of sharing their geo-location knowledge about San Francisco. A partnership with local Cartography Associates led to the digitization of these historically-valuable map volumes (the only set to survive the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire) for SFPL. Almost as soon as the maps went public online, local blogger Burrito Justice shouted his enthusiasm, local Stamen design and technology studio responded by creating a geo-location alignment tool, and now hundreds of 1905 Sanborn Insurance maps have been matched to current maps of San Francisco at www.sanborn.maptcha.org. The project continues with the digitizing of San Francisco Aerial Views, August, 1938, making 164 aerial black-and-white photographs at the scale of 1:2,000 available to all online users. Finally, SFPL staff selected 200 of SFPL’s digitized photographs to upload to Flickr. This set receives 2,250 hits per month, more than our entire photo collection on the library portal.


While this project will be ongoing as long as there are materials to be made available and creative ideas for using those items in a digital environment, the outcomes so far have included: • 544 large format maps and photos were scanned for free by forming partnerships. • The 200 photos uploaded on Flickr receive 2,250 hits per month, more than the much larger photo collection on the library portal. • Old S.F. has attracted more than 300,000 visitors in the 7 months since its launch. • Articles and blog posts described the community/library digital projects. A story in The New York Times on September 3, 2011 quoted San Francisco History Center photo curator Christina Moretta, “The idea is for us to get more content out there that people can create new things from.” • The Library used social media, including its blog and Facebook page, to better share the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection with the public. • Requests for reproductions from the San Francisco Historical Photograph collection have increased by 20% since the Flickr photos and Old S.F. went live. • Upcoming: San Francisco Aerial Views, August, 1938 will soon be going live as a Google maps historical overlay. Because of a handful of Web-based collaborations and partnerships between individuals, community members, businesses, bloggers, and the San Francisco History Center, the public can now find the 40,000 images it had digitized from its vast collection and the one-of-a-kind 1905 Sanborn Map and over 13,000 images from the well-loved SFPL photo collection in more places and contexts. The project facilitated an exciting mash-up of unique archival library resources with cutting-edge pop-culture and digital media sharing models to create a totally new user experience. The impact of this project has local, regional and national significance.