November 11: Public history in 21st century Philly

Devoted readers of this space know how much we love sharing images of the city’s past – from early 20th century aerials to streetviews of the mid-century city. These photographs help illustrate just how much Philadelphia has changed over time – and just how much remains the same. Lucky for us the sources for these views of urban history are many.

One of the deepest wells is the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). HSP has a stunning 21 million documents, including an exceptional wealth of historic Philadelphiana.

But what can an early 19th century institution like HSP teach us about being a 21st century city?  How can archives illuminate current concerns, like urban bicycling, flood risk, park life, demolition and vacancy, vibrant commercial corridors, legacy transit system, the skyline, and our sports?

Take a look at this selection of images from HSP’s collection – mostly drawn from the photo morgue of the Philadelphia Record, which was published from the 1870s until 1947 – and each tells a story:

Resources like these help HSP connect researchers, armchair historians, students and educators, and heritage institutions with pieces of our collective past, enabling us all to tell richer stories about our city, and help shape our sense of place.

For that work HSP is featured in a episode of the PBS documentary series Visionaries, which we’ll be screening at WHYY on November 11 at 7pm. After the brief screening I’ll be moderating a discussion about HSP’s ongoing efforts to provide new ways to access its rich collection, and how repositories like HSP help provide context for our understanding of 21st century Philadelphia. Joining me will be Page Talbott (President and CEO of HSP), Patrick Grossi (Director of Advocacy, Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia), George Boudreau (Assistant Professor of History, La Salle University), and Bill Mosher, (Director and Producer of Visionaries).

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