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Robert C Allen

'Mapping local heritage in the US: Main Street, Carolina'

- Academic perspective – cultural historian.

- Has been interested in looking at the way people have experienced cinema over 100+ years.

- Impetus for project – previous work had led to the conclusion that:

1) Techniques for representing the history of the experiences of cinema-going (plotting dots on a printed map) were inadequate and often misleading.

2) Physical, social and culture circumstances in which movie-going happened in Manhattan (in relation to 1978 paper written by Robert C Allen) could not be generalised to other places, and particularly smaller cities.

Using city directories, maps and newspapers – Prof Allen’s graduate students had carried out some studies plotting how cinema-going experience developed in certain towns and cities in North Carolina.

Studies invariably showed that race was the determining social factor that impacted upon cinema experiences in early 1900s.

Next phase of research:

What should be the unit of historical analysis?

North Carolina – state with hundreds of small towns, no metropolitan centre, very diverse.

North Carolina Collection at UNC Library enabled Prof Allen to look at the entire state of North Carolina as his unit of historical analysis – largest collection of printed and published material about a US state in the world.

Prof Allen was able to make use of Sanborn Fire Insurance maps (1880-1930) from over 100 towns and cities – seen by geographical historians as the single most valuable historical resource for understanding the physical, environmental, social and architectural development in urban America. Huge maps of cities, used to assist fire insurance companies in setting fire insurance rates and terms. Intervals between maps roughly every 5 years.

Reflected the rigidly segregated nature of North Carolina during this period – maps mark black hospitals, businesses owned by black people etc.

Also worked with the Head of Digital Publishing for UNC’s Special Collections Library, which had been digitising much of the library’s historical collection.

Prof Allen wanted to use the maps and city directory listings to document the first inventory of all cinema venues in operation between 1896 and 1930 for an entire state, as well as the first inventory of African American cinemas (right into the 1950s) that had ever been compiled for an entire state.

Prof Allen was able to get a Professor in Digital Libraries at UNC to develop his project with his graduate students – also helped to define what was being plotted as a “movie venue” (included a wide variety of sites, not just commercial venues, also non-theatrical venues that did not necessarily appear on maps).

- Looking at commercial venues on the Sanborn maps – concluded that:

1) cinema-going was a significant part of downtown Carolina’s leisure experiences.

2) experiences of movie-going weren’t represented very well by simply displaying movie venue locations on a map.

Put together a funding proposal (Fall 2006) to digitise all Sanborn map pages that contained downtown commercial cinema venues in 45 communities across the state between 1896-1923 (about 750 map pages) – successful grant.

Later digitally stitched the map pages together to form a synoptic view of each downtown at a particular historic moment.

Decided to use Google Maps as viewer:

- ease of use

- no additional software needed by end user

User can locate any particular place within a larger physical and social environment in the downtown, and see the relationship between downtown and the surrounding area – can also view how an area has changed over time by switching between maps.

As the contemporary Google satellite map is the base map, using a transparency slider enables the user to compare any historical map with the contemporary satellite view.

Working with paid undergraduate students, located and digitised associated content in relation to cinema venues (photographs, newspaper articles etc).

Wanted at least one community which went beyond the more superficial plotting of the maps in displaying the cinema-going experience; vast local history collection originating from Wilmington library in North Carolina. All content geo-referenced and displayed on Sanborn maps. Illuminated the cinema-going experience at the time (1906-7). Set within larger context of downtown experience, paying attention to role of gender and race in downtown movie-going.

Shifting perspective to experience of films to cinema more broadly conceived – focusing on archives from the communities, in which the history of cinema-going is imbedded.

Digitised and provided commentary about individuals using a ledger of expense receipts from Bijou cinema over a four month period (1910-11). Also digitised movie reviews and programmes from the same period, to establish a correlation with these and the expenses.

Also asked a music professor at UNC to perform sheet music from some of the films shown at the time, and synced these with film clips.

Tracing paper architectural drawings found preserved, including cinema drawings – also digitised. Gave a glimpse into cinema theatre architecture (e.g. box offices with two windows – one for blacks, one for whites).

History of cinema-going experience – could be expanded to use digitised Sanborn maps to provide information about other areas – to use different tools.

Demand for internet access in public libraries has soared in recent years – importance of digital presence of libraries and museums too.

Next project – Mainstream Carolina – a free, web-based history resource that would allow libraries, museums, and other community organisations to preserve and document their history in relation to the development of their downtowns in the first decades of the 20th Century.

Providing organisations with a flexible, user-friendly digital platform on which they can add a wide variety of local historical data, layered onto digitised historic maps.

Compact framework, easy to install on the organisation’s own web-server. Place markers on the maps will be associated with stories, photographs etc, providing a visual link between content and related locations. Urban development in the 1950s-80s eradicated many of the iconic buildings associated with the town’s history, therefore important to digitise and preserve this history.



Issues for the network:

- How to build in complex info and still maintain goal of ease of use.

- Which features to build in as a software application and which to use outside (e.g. Flickr, Youtube).

- Display – access beyond a computer – interactive white boards, location-sensitive mobile devices etc?