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Asking the Crowd to Help Tell the Story of San Francisco Bay

| April 5, 2013
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See the photo below? Where was it taken, and what does it show?

We can give you two clues:

  1. It’s somewhere in Alviso, down at the south end of San Francisco Bay.
  2. It was taken in 1948.

Through a unique history crowdsourcing project called “Year of the Bay,” the California Historical Society is hoping the public will help uncover the story behind that picture –and many others.

Know what's in this photo? Tell us in a comment below. (Photo by Challis Gore, courtesy of the California Historical Society.)

Know where this is? Tell us in a comment below. (Photo by Challis Gore, courtesy of the California Historical Society.)

2013 is a big year for San Francisco Bay, with the America’s Cup yacht race this summer and the new Bay Bridge scheduled to open. To celebrate, the California Historical Society is opening a new exhibit called “Curating the Bay.” It’s part of “Year of the Bay,” a larger collaboration bringing together Stanford University and museums and archives from around the Bay Area.

The exhibit, opening Sunday, shows the transformation of San Francisco Bay through photos, maps and paintings from the historical society’s collection.

“The bay itself has been changed dramatically by people, by industry, by military, by recreation, now by restoration and rising sea levels from climate change,” said guest curator Jon Christensen. “I think by looking back at the changes that have taken place, we can also think about what it is we value today about the bay and what we want it to look like in the future.”

The evidence of San Francisco Bay’s evolution, both natural and man-made, is everywhere inside the historical society’s vaults directly underneath Mission Street.

Alison Moore and Jon Christensen look through photos in the vault of the California Historical Society. (Photo: Lauren Sommer/KQED)

Alison Moore and Jon Christensen look through photos in the vault of the California Historical Society. (Photo: Lauren Sommer/KQED)

“Here you can see the timbers for the ship,” said librarian and archivist Alison Moore, holding a photo from the 1920s that shows a crew digging up an old ship near Battery Street.

During the Gold Rush, the city grew so fast that residents created land and buildings by filling in the spaces between ships.

“Beneath the surface of San Francisco, there’s still evidence of these old ships and wharves,” Moore said.

Many of the half-million photographs in the collection hold clues to San Francisco Bay history, but include no specific information about the scenes and the people they depict.

“They’re interesting photographs, but we don’t know anything about them,” Christensen said. “So what we hope to do is get lots of people’s help in figuring out what these historical sources are and what they can tell us.”

The mystery items will be shown in the exhibit and online at YearoftheBay.org, through a partnership with Historypin and Stanford University’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis. The hope is that the public will help explain some of their secrets.

“We’re adding on to the great coral reef of knowledge about the past,” said Anthea Hartig, executive director of the California Historical Society. “And when you’ve been collecting off and on since 1870, there’s a lot to the coral reef. So, this project is so exciting for us because through both new technology and some old ones, we get to add on.”

Other museums and archives also will be digitizing and sharing collections online, including the Oakland Museum of California, UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library and the San Francisco Public Library. The public can also contribute items to the Year of the Bay project, including photos, maps and letters.

The effort will test the possibilities of crowdsourcing.

“If we can make it work in these rooms of the California Historical Society,” said Nick Stanhope of Historypin, “then we’ve got a methodology that can help unearth vast quantities of knowledge from huge audiences around the world and unlock the resources of these vaults of materials and photographs and maps.”

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Category: Environment

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About the Author ()

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer. Reach Lauren Sommer at lsommer@kqed.org.

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