With Building Inspector, the NYPL is hoping to start an era of “citizen cartographers,” inviting people to “help unlock New York City’s past by identifying buildings and other details on beautiful old maps.”
Through a series of small tasks, users help train the library’s computers to recognize and sort building shapes on digitized insurance atlases — detailed topographic and property maps dating back to the 1800s. Users are essentially checking the computer’s work to create new, reliable public city records.
The tasks involve checking building footprints, fixing building footprints, entering addresses, classifying colors, and finding place names. Each task is preceded by a two-minute instructional video set to a jaunty ragtime score. The video explains the necessary markers, tools and data points the user will be checking.
The NYPL asks users to “imagine if maps had a magic switch that let you explore the geography of the past. [Building Inspector] wants to do this for New York City, turning historical atlases into time machines.”
With reliable maps of the city through history, the NYPL hopes users will soon be able to “explore a city’s past on foot with [their] mobile device, ‘checking in’ to ghostly establishments.” Maps could link to related historical documents to those places — from old newspapers to business directories to photographs to restaurant menus to theater playbills.
It’s hard to believe that a “comprehensive directory of old New York,” could be fun, but why not see for yourself?