Now that The New York Times has declared the enjoyment of nostalgia healthy for the mind and not a psychological disorder, we can all continue living in the past and enjoying the collective experiences of our memories, what a relief! We can now continue to do so while not only realizing it’s not driving us crazy, and that it is a wholesome and worthwhile experience.
Local nostalgia is where the joy of our memories meets the intellectual pavement of the road of history. It’s hard to share individual personal events with a group–and national events don’t offer that same human touch–the study of local history has the unique appeal of being notable yet also being something special to us personally.
But how to go about finding local history? As recently as twenty years ago, if you wanted to find anything at all, you did it the old way. You used your card catalog and found what you could on the library shelves or maybe you went to the local bookstore. Today developments in technology and how to present it have literally transformed the way in which we go about studying our past from the isolated analog method to the collaborative digital one. A new breed of online amateur historians have really made the difference.
While the change in just twenty years in research sources is huge when you look at it over time, it did not just happen overnight, and it wasn’t obvious where it would go. It took technology, time, and the right ideas to make the voyage from Mosaic the first internet browser, and cern, the first website, to get to the millions of newspaper, train, road, and archive photographs that are now within close reach of your computer
It was hard to know in 1993 how exactly the internet would change the world. We still thought using America Online and listening for the “you’ve got mail” sound was what ‘being online’ was all about. The idea that the web would revolutionize anything at all was not quite so evident. When it came to history, it was the inspired originality of the individual that has made the difference.
One of the first individuals to create a historically oriented site was Kevin Walsh. In 1998, sitting in his Port Washington office as a mechanical artist at Publishers Clearing House, he sketched out on a piece of scrap paper the framework for what would become the Forgotten New York website. It is still the most popular neighborhood centric site on the net. Kevin continues to offer his city tours and has written a book, with another on the way in a few months.
A year earlier, Steven Anderson had launched his independent Nycroads.com site. Anderson can often be seen on cnbc.com evaluating the prospects of restaurant chains for investment firm Miller Taba. His site is regarded as the most comprehensive source for New York City area road construction and history. It has so much information that the city’s own engineers often link to the site for reference. Anderson has since authored sites just like his New York one for six other cities, including Philadelphia and Boston.
The first true highway in New York, the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway of Long Island was opened in 1908, and while Anderson devotes a page on his site to it, the aura of the road is an invitation for deeper web exploration. In 2001, Sam Berliner III answered the call and launched his very detailed multi-page Long Island Motor Parkway Site and loaded it with both recent as well as vintage photos. Berliner remembered riding the Parkway as a child, years after it closed, he once snuck a ’54 Ford Anglia onto the highway to take a daring drive around the roads famous Dead Man’s Curve (in Bethpage). It was when Berliner attended a lecture by historian Bob Miller (a video of Miller’s can be seen here) that he became inspired and decided to address a topic he said he felt had a “noticeable lack of coverage on the net.”
Berliner III also would go on to found the Long Island Motor Parkway Preservation Panel, an organization dedicated to preserving what is left of it. Sam eventually moved away from the island, but much of what he started online for the Motor Parkway is now carried out by public relations executive Howard Kroplick. Kroplick, a racing enthusiast, was able to track down one of the cars used in the first Indianapolis 500 and had the honor of driving that car around the Indianapolis Speedway track before the 2009 Indy, which was the races one hundredth running. He has written a book on the history of the Motor Parkway, its races and its legacy. To me and many of my internet photo history enthusiasts, Kroplick is great at tracking down rare aerial photos of the roadway which show us how it wound through what was then a very undeveloped Long Island landscape.
Train lines have been part of Long Island, dating back to the 1830’s when the earliest construction of the first lines sprang from Brooklyn and Jamaica outward. Todays main line through Hicksville to Ronkonkoma was planned as a part of a longer route to take would be passengers all the way from Manhattan to Boston that never truly developed. Many branches were built throughout the late 1800’s and early 1900’s with enthusiastic exuberance only to be eventually closed and abandoned. Art Huenke, a train collecting LIRR enthusiast was looking for a way to share his many vintage photos and huge railroad knowledge when he launched his Arrts archives site. His pages offer detailed photos of many of those abandoned lines and is a great place to learn about the many stations and lines that once were a part of the LIRR. www.trainsarefun.com came online about the same time as Art’s site, and it offers its own wealth of Long Island Railroad history and photos as well.
The mid 2000’s saw a growth of photo database sites, many of them historically oriented in nature. These sites offered everyday users the first chance to post their own photos and discuss the pictures with others right on the net. Cinematreasures became the place to remember and discuss long gone, as well as still standing movie theaters. Baseballfever became a discussion of baseball history, the site divided by team, stadium, player, or league. Wirednewyork is where people come to share vintage photos of NYC. Blog pages discussing area history have become popular, too, with pages like Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, Queens Crap, The Bowery Boys gaining supportive audiences. All these sites still going strong today.
We can access a wealth of historical material today, old photos, documents, newspapers, books, census records have become available. The Library of Congress offers 6,025,474 pages from 967 newspapers dating from 1836-1922. (1922 is currently the generally agreed upon date before which there are no copyright restrictions on documents). The library hosts 13.7 million images a number which continues to grow. The New York Public Library hosts over 275,000 images. The Museum of the City of New York, originally one of the first local museum sites to make information available online, now has 125,000 images online, many of those added in recent years. The New York City Municipal Archive with over 870,000 photos came online in April 2012. Google Books which first came online in 2004 has now scanned the pages of over 10 million books and continues to grow.
One man, Tom Tryniski, a retired engineer has scanned several million New York newspaper images onto his Fulton Postcards website which offers an incredible wealth of New York history. Run by just Tryniski alone, the site allows a search of the entire Brooklyn Daily Eagle archive and hundreds of other area newspapers which are found nowhere else online. His offerings rival that of any library site on the net. The only concern for Tryniski’s site (and all of the other independently run ones like his) is that one day it will be gone. Tryniski has been adding to his library consistently, a reminder of how much more is still yet to be found on the net.
By the time Facebook started to gain wide acceptance, there were already millions of historical photos and documents available online just waiting to be re-posted, re-seen and rediscovered. Facebook offered a wider audience to become part of the historic discovery process by becoming fans or by adding their own experiences through their stories photos, and remembrances.
Libraries quickly made their way over to Facebook, too, The Library of Congress, New York Public Library, and US National Archives all have Facebook pages. But the goal of their pages is to bring people over to their information intensive websites and to their libraries. It has been many of the independent user initiated pages that have become often even more attractive to Facebook users. Richard Karns of Indiana launched his Never Forget 9/11 page devoted to remembering and helping those affected by the tragic events of that day. His page has grown to 449,000 fans (the official 9/11 memorial and museum has 1/4 that amount at just over 100,000 fans).
Carl Manley, a retired sheet metal worker launched the aptly named Old Images of Philadelphia Facebook page which has attracted over 75,000 fans to date. Manley was forced into retirement because of a heart condition and he calls the page his own reaction to the catalysts of “depression, boredom and free time.” Manley has combined the wealth of online historical photos available from sources like phillyhistory.org and the Temple archives, with the many historical photos contributed by individual fans. It gives the page a grassroots feel and helps to increase its popularity among them. Facebook brings photos from collections that have never before been seen. For people like myself who relish every chance to get a photographic glimpse back into the past, finding user contributed photos represent a cherished twist of fate. Here we are, using the internet and social media, that which has been created within the last few years, to get an enriched look back into a time long before Bill Gates was born.
While institutional pages like those of the libraries offer a wealth of value, the independent pages should not be undervalued or unappreciated. Their authors are able match and in many cases surpass content quality with much smaller staffs and budgets. These independent frontiersmen of the internet blaze a trail that attracts a growing audience that is both enthusiastic, loyal and energetic. The information these historians offer can not be duplicated anywhere else on any other site. These sites should be praised, they are all invaluable in teaching us about our local history.
How far along we are and where we are headed in online media historical research and presentation is unknown. What direction and format we are headed into the future is not all that much more clear than it was twenty years ago. One things we know for sure is that the internet will be a part of it, and that it will take the unique inspired and insightful individual to really make it work.