Introducing OpenSFHistory

by Woody LaBounty
Founder of Western Neighborhoods Project

OpenSFHistory is a program of Western Neighborhoods Project to make private collections of historical San Francisco images open to the public.

But OpenSFHistory isn’t just a website of old photos. The name is intended as a description, a directive, an expressed philosophy. We at Western Neighborhoods Project want history to be available, accessible, and even positively transformative. Being a small local history nonprofit, doesn’t mean we can’t dream big.

Western Neighborhoods Project started in 1999. The idea of an organization with a mission to preserve and share the history of western San Francisco really came the year before, when David Gallagher and I wondered how towns like Belvedere in Marin County (pop. 2,100) could have a historical society, or even a museum, but the Richmond District (pop. 59,000) was often unmentioned in books on the history of San Francisco.

Researching, writing, and reading history is time-travel, of course, but as WNP approaches its 17th anniversary I find myself wishing for a true time machine.

First order of business when I return to 1998—after buying as much Mission District real estate and Apple stock I can—would be to come up with a better name for the organization. We’re officially Western Neighborhoods Project, but a lot of people, even decade-long members, call us “Outside Lands,” which is obviously a good name, as why else would a successful music festival adopt it? We still disagree on the board if we’re Western Neighborhoods Project or the Western Neighborhoods Project. The WNP or just WNP?

“Project” sounds too limiting anyway. A project is something one plans to complete, with a finish line, an end result, and likely over budget. But we have not finished our work, and truthfully, never can.

Nothing has made this clearer than our acceptance this past year of a massive photo archive, perhaps the largest private collection of San Francisco historical images. The collector, who prefers to remain anonymous to the greater public, is sharing custody with us of perhaps 100,000 negatives and prints. The collection is the cornerstone of OpenSFHistory.

Our goal is the same as it has always been, concisely described in the two verbs of the WNP mission statement: to preserve and share the history of the western neighborhoods. With volunteer help from archivists, historians, and smart, enthusiastic newcomers to the world of collection management, we have processed and safely stored some 6,000 images so far. Most of these prints and negatives have been scanned. Some have been shared on our website (outsidelands.org), our social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), at presentations (Balboa Theatre, Internet Archive), and in our quarterly magazine, SF West History. Many, many more we are now unveiling on this website, which we created for making such private collections public and open.

OpenSFHistory is a work in progress. We intend to add tools, filters, and better search functionality. There may be a wrinkle or two to straighten out. The important point is we are sharing (at the time I write this) 3,703 historical images from San Francisco history.

You will see that we have moved beyond our western neighborhood borders: photographs of downtown after the earthquake, family snapshots from the Western Addition, views of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in today’s Marina District. But there are plenty of west side images: Golden Gate Park, Ocean Beach, and the haunting sand dunes of the Sunset District.

We will keep scanning negatives and prints and adding to the site, but posting images online is just a first step. We’re a history organization. Preserving and sharing for us means more than just an archival envelope and online access to a digital photo. Each image is just a starting point so that investigation, interpretation, new research, and story-sharing can follow.

Project, then, doesn’t work as a word to describe what we’re doing. Even with a thousand scanners, a thousand volunteers, in thirty years we will not be “finished” with this work. Even with all the images online, the research evolves, the stories to share unravel forever, and the audience grows and changes in one of the most dynamic cities of the world. The best WNP can hope for is a smooth hand-off of this amazing collection to other researchers, librarians, and lovers of San Francisco history. Someday.

But today, we could use some help, which brings me to my second time-travel task upon arriving back in the late 1990s: encourage a WNP community from day one, because that’s where the opportunity to make a difference lies.

We were slow in engaging with the people who found our website or who happened upon one of our presentations. We shied from hosting our own events, nurturing our membership, and truly building a community.

Grants and institutional funding sources for local history are almost nonexistent. The support to do our work really comes from “regular people” who love history and the neighborhood and give a little each year. Because of our supporters and WNP members, we can take on the private collection, order the supplies to store it safely, and buy the computers and scanners and bandwidth to share it.

We’re still trying to do more, do better, with programs like OpenSFHistory. The extent of our success depends heavily on your generosity. Please contact us if you have ideas, connections, or resources to offer. And support San Francisco history, made open to the public, with a financial donation to this new and exciting program.

Other Places to Find SF History Images

Looking for more images from San Francisco’s rich history? Here we list some of our favorite free online resources for research, education, and enjoyment.

Remember that not everything is online. Some of the Bay Area’s great institutions have only a small portion of their collections online. We recommend in-person visits to the San Francisco History Center, the California Historical Society, The Society of California Pioneers, The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, the California State Library, and the GGNRA Archives.

San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection
San Francisco History Center of the San Francisco Public Library
40,000 images from the city’s official archive.
sfpl.org/

OldSF.org
A map tool to browse the SF library’s great collection
oldsf.org

Historypin.org
Another neat mapping tool with curated collections
historypin.org

SFMTA Photography Department & Archive
Beautiful and informative collection of transit and landmarks
sfmta.photoshelter.com

1951 San Francisco Assessors Negatives
Curated by Western Neighborhoods Project
An online collection of SF buildings, grand and humble from 1951
1951.outsidelands.org

David Rumsey Map Collection
More than maps (which are amazing), see the collection of aerial photographs of the entire city in 1938
davidrumsey.com

Calisphere (University of California)
Images from the state’s great libraries, archives, and museums
calisphere.cdlib.org

Golden Gate National Recreation Area Park Archives
National Park Service
nps.gov/goga/

Jesse Brown Cook Scrapbooks
Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley
Lots of candid views of many SF street scenes
oac.cdlib.org

Lawrence & Houseworth Albums
The Society of California Pioneers
1,495 Historical Photographs of California and Nevada, including 296 of San Francisco in the 1860s
californiapioneers.org

Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection
Indiana University
1,788 color images of San Francisco in mid 20th Century
indiana.edu/cushman

Max Kirkeberg Collection
Photographs of San Francisco neighborhoods from the 1970s to the present, collected and shot by the SF State geography professor emeritus.
diva.sfsu.edu/collections/kirkeberg/

Enhancements Planned for OpenSFHistory

Our goal in creating OpenSFHistory is to build the most accessible collection of historical San Francisco images in existence. To that end we have the following features in mind.

Advanced Search – allowing filtering by date, location, update time, and date added to the site

Map Enhancement –  filtering by date, clustering of markers.

Enhanced Mobile Device Support – currently, small screens are not supported well by the map  or by lightbox modal windows. We are actively working on the issue.

Print Sales – We are in the process of creating a program whereby users can buy high-resolution images for printing.

Related Institutions Metadata- We will connect individual images with institutions that possess related items. In the case of reproduced copy negatives, we hope to identify and link to the agency or institution where the original is held.

Photographer/Contributor Metadata – We will acknowledge creators and contributors where possible, creating links to biographies and related collections.

Greater Interpretation of Images – We will strive to interpret images, not just to present them without comment.

Incorporation of User Input – We don’t know everything about every image. We encourage users to correct and identify misinformation. Each image has image has a contact form attached to it on its detail display page for this expressed purpose.

 

Photographic format sources in OpenSFHistory

Digital images on OpenSFHistory are created from many types of original photographic material. Here we detail some of the formats.

Glass Plate Negatives
(catalog numbers beginning with wnp15)

Glass plate negatives were in use by both amateur and professional photographers from the 1850s until the early 1920s. Examples in OpenSFHistory date from the 1880s, and sizes range from 8×10 inches to 2×3 inches. To date, we have cataloged over 800 glass plate negatives.

Glass Plate Negatives
A glass plate negative viewed on a light table.

 

Nitrate Film Negatives
(catalog numbers beginning with wnp14)

Nitrate negatives are a plastic film in use from about 1895 until the 1940s when safety film largely replaced it. Most amateur film up though the end of the 1930s is nitrate film. Nitrate film is highly flammable, but will not combust spontaneously under normal environmental conditions. Nitrate film was still in production up until the 1950s and it can be difficult to identify. If we’re not sure about the chemical composition of a film negative, to be safe, we treat it as nitrate. After scanning, these items are vacuum-sealed and put into cold storage. To date, over 1,000 have been processed and put online.

Nitrate negative
A nitrate negative

 

Safety Film Negatives
(catalog numbers beginning with wnp28)

Beginning in the mid-1920s, nitrate film began being replaced with cellulose acetate film known as “safety film.” While more stable and less flammable than nitrate, safety film does deteriorate, and can become acidic, shrink, and degrade (a vinegar smell is a big tip-off). So far we have cataloged over 500 negatives.

 

Lantern Slides
(catalog numbers beginning with wnp13)

Lantern slides are mounted glass positives. They were mostly produced commercially for sale and were intended for projection on a screen, either in the home or in a theatre. They are the precursors to 35mm transparency slides popular from the 1940s to the 1970s. We currently count 272 lantern slides in the collection.

Lantern Slide
Lantern Slides

 

Stereoviews
(catalog numbers beginning with wnp24)

Stereoviews, or stereopticon cards, are commercially-produced dual exposures mounted on cardboard for viewing with a special viewer to produce a three-dimensional effect. They are the precursors to Viewmaster reels of the 1950s and 60s. We have not digitized any stereoviews at this point.

Stereoviews
Stereoviews

 

35mm Slides
(catalog numbers beginning with wnp25)

Primarily Kodachrome, 35mm positive transparencies in the collection date from the late 1940s though the 1980s. We currently have about 400 online.

35mm slides
35mm slides

 

Copy Negatives
(catalog numbers beginning with wnp26 and wnp33)

Copy negatives are pictures of pictures. There are many, many copy negatives in the collection, so many that we have separated them into multiple catalog numbers. These images have many sources, from city agencies such as the Department of Public Works and San Francisco Water Department (PUC); institutions such as Society of California Pioneers and California Historical Society; and individual collectors and families who allowed their photos to be copied. The bulk of this type of negative are still in the process of being cataloged and digitized.

35mm copy negatives
35mm copy negatives

 

Duplicate Negatives

Duplicate negatives are created in a darkroom by a process where positive film is exposed to a negative, resulting in another negative. Often this is accomplished as a contact exposure, where an exposed negative is laid directly onto film and exposed to light. Identifying duplicate negatives can be a challenge and some dupe negatives have been processed.

Original Prints and Scrapbooks
(catalog numbers beginning with wnp27)

Acquired through purchase and gifts, these items are mostly amateur photography and family photos, though a small amount of commercial photographs exist in the collection.

Original Prints
Original Prints

 

Contemporary Prints
(catalog numbers beginning with wnp4)

The private collector, whose collection is the cornerstone of OpenSFHistory, was an accomplished photographer and darkroom technician who made prints from many sources for reference, sharing, trading, and for sale. Often other collectors lent items for this purpose. The collector stored most negatives with one or more reference prints. Boxes of prints arranged by location were loaned out to other collectors or historians for scanning or duplication. Many of the prints in the collection are duplicated by original or copy negatives extant in the collection, but in some cases the negatives from which the print is derived was borrowed and returned. We avoid scanning contemporary prints unless we are sure that the negative doesn’t exist in the collection.

Contemporary 8x10 Prints
Contemporary 8×10 Prints

Western Neighborhoods Project and the Private Collector

reprinted from SF West History – the member newsletter of the Western Neighborhoods Project

You know the name. If you have spent any time looking at historical photos of San Francisco in the past thirty years, you’ve read it. At this point in his life this collector of San Francisco imagery doesn’t want any more publicity. For the past few years his policy has been photos should be cited as “Courtesy of a Private Collector.”

At the Western Neighborhoods Project we have had a long relationship with this private collector, gratefully accepting images to help illustrate the history of the city’s west side. Almost every major collection of San Francisco historical photos has passed through his hands at some point.

Early in 2013 he approached us about taking stewardship of his collection, to catalog, digitize, preserve, and make it available to the public, both physically and online. We were shocked and excited. The collection amounts to thousands of images in many forms. Together, the recent 8×10 inch prints; acetate, glass, and nitrate negatives; cabinet cards; panoramas; postcards; scrapbooks; yearbooks and other items tell a story of one person’s passion for San Francisco’s past.

“It’s too much, “we thought as we eyeballed the more than twenty-five file cabinets holding most of the collection. The sheer volume was intimidating for a volunteer-run organization with a small annual budget and limited physical space.

We faced and equally-daunting situation in 2002, when we had the opportunity to save four 1906 earthquake refugee cottages on Kirkham Street. Uncertain we could pull it off, we tried anyway. And we succeeded.

So we came up with a plan. We’d do a pilot project with just a small portion of the collection. We decided to tackle the images of the Cliff House, Sutro Baths, Sutro Heights, and Ocean Beach areas. We would sort, rehouse, catalog, digitize, and put online this first installment, then step back to assess the effort, costs, and rewards.

We accepted the first few boxes early last summer (2014): 1600 8 x 10 inch prints (amounting to about 1100 individual images) and another 40 or so glass and acetate negatives. Everything has been digitized and put online. The results are amazing.

Much of the material was compiled from other local collections, but a lot is new to even old hands like us. Local Historian and former National Park ranger John Martini and others have been helping us go through it all.

“Most of the historic photos I looked at were totally unique to me (and I’ve looked at a LOT of San Francisco photographs)… The number of photos is absolutely breathtaking, if not overwhelming. I felt like I kid in a candy shop.”

What’s next? Our pilot project is complete. (We are still adding titles, descriptions, and other metadata.) We will regroup with the private collector and our board of directors to draft a plan moving forward. We will keep the membership involved and informed along the way, but any future WNP has with the rest of this amazing archive will mean some serious fundraising. If you have any resources you believe may help, let us know.