Sunday, July 13, 2008

Washington DC, the ultimate History Mashup

I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington D.C. doing some family history research for someone I know. I went in with a single name and to my surprise, came out with a very complete picture of three people.

The Washington library has a lovely little shelf of books for genealogists to do their one-stop shopping for information, almost all indexed by surname. It turns out, nearly everything a genealogist in D.C. could want has been indexed this way by a couple of dedicated archivists. My research was just a matter of flipping through the index of each book, looking for the name I wanted, or a close variation thereof. I was essentially Google searching the old fashioned way.

Not only did I find marriage records, death announcements and a transcription of a will, but I found what was essentially a phone book for 1822 D.C. listing most of the 13 000 residents, and abstracts of the newspaper, the National Intelligencer from 1800 to the end of the Civil War. Each one of these works is an amazing feat in itself, but together they paint an amazing and rather comprehensive image of what Washington DC was like during the 19th century.

Based on the information available in the books on this shelf, it would be quite feasible to map exactly where almost all of Washington D.C.'s 19th century citizens lived.

The woman I was researching lived at the "n side I n. btw 19 & 20w."
Here's where that falls on a modern map. Plotted for me by Google Maps.

The David Rumsey Map collection has already been working with Google Earth, and overlays of historic D.C. maps can be viewed using Google Earth. This means that KML markup (the language that allows people to add their photos/comments/links to Google Earth) can be applied to these historic maps.

Using the City Directories, available from the Washington Public Library, the residents of 19th century Washington could be plotted onto this map. The directories were published every 5 years or so, and the migration of citizens could be plotted over time.

Each entry could include all of the documentary evidence still available about these people, much the same way people add photos to Google Earth.

Such a project would be a fabulous finding aid to genealogists who are searching for relatives who lived in the D.C. area.

It would also be one of the world's greatest Mash-ups, making evident a huge number of relationships to historians. Everything from patterns in crime, to trends in migration, to whether or not people married outside of their neighbourhoods would become open to the data mining of historians, using techniques not unlike Bill Turkel's Naive Bayesian project using the Old Bailey Online database.

Perhaps a future CHNM project?

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