“Ten Years” Tour: Using New Technology for History

Chris Carlsson installing a "Ten Years" plaque at 2937 - 24th Street. 2011 photo by LisaRuth Elliott/Shaping San Francisco.

In the recently published Ten Years that Shook the City: San Francisco, 1968-1978, editor Chris Carlsson and the contributing essayists argue that the years 1968-1978 saw important innovations in grassroots political mobilization in San Francisco. These innovations included new directions in environmental justice work; changes in student, labor and immigrant organizing; housing rights and anti-gentrification campaigns; and unprecedented interventions against racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Accompanying the publication of the book is the release of a self-guided walking tour. The tour covers twenty-four sites in the Mission District, and each site is related to an essay that appears in Ten Years (a map of the sites is available for free at City Lights,  The Green Arcade, and other local bookstores, galleries, and cafés;  and can be ordered online for $5). Visitors to each tour site can dial (877) 919-7464 to hear an audio recording by the essays’ authors about the sites  – similar to audio tours by phone offered at some museum exhibitions.

What is especially innovative about the Ten Years tour is the use of on-site QR (“quick response”) codes. Posted at each of the twenty-four sites is a plaque identifying the location as part of the Ten Years tour. Visitors can use their smartphones to scan the QR code featured on the plaque, automatically opening one of twenty-four webpages on their phone. For example, visitors to 3030B – 16th St.,  near the site of the former San Francisco American Indian Center, can find a Ten Years tour plaque that includes the following QR code:

QR code for "Reflections from Occupied Ohlone Territory"

When this QR code is scanned from the “Ten Years” plaque (or from this computer screen) with a smartphone, a webpage opens on the phone with an excerpt of Mary Jean Robertson’s essay, “Reflections from Occupied Ohlone Territory.” The webpage also features an audio file of Ms. Robertson reading from her essay. The audio file can be heard by clicking on the “play” button of the audio bar, or, if visitors are using an iPhone, an mp3 of the recording can be downloaded.

This is not the first time Chris Carlsson has used of emerging technology to deliver historical content. Carlsson is one of the founding members of Shaping San Francisco, a grassroots project dedicated to documenting underrepresented aspects of the history of labor, ecology, transportation, and political activism in San Francisco. Beginning in 1998, the Shaping San Francisco team had developed some of this historical content and made it available in the form of CD-ROMs. Perhaps more interestingly, Carlsson and his colleagues also installed 6 public kiosks around they city – including locations such as Rainbow Grocery, Modern Times Bookstore, and the Anarchist Book Fair. The kiosks featured desktop computers that were not connected to the Internet, but whose hard drives contained of the content from the CD-ROMs. Together, the CD-ROMs and the public kiosks were intended to make this historical content as accessible to as many potential users as possible. Furthermore, users were encouraged to submit original content themselves – such as oral histories and historic photographs – for future upgrades of Shaping San Francisco.

By 2009, however, the Shaping San Francisco team had phased the kiosks out. The  team migrated the historical content from the CD-ROMs and kiosks to a new format – an online wiki called FoundSF. By choosing to use a wiki, the Shaping San Francisco team was again implementing an emerging technology. The FoundSF wiki has been supported by both CounterPULSE and the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.

Although stand-alone kiosks with no Internet connection became obsolete, at the time of their debut they were a groundbreaking use of new technology. Similarly, wikis and QR codes might eventually be superceded by other ways of delivering historical content. However the new trends develop, Carlsson and his colleagues may well continue to blaze trails by acting as early adopters of emerging technology to make historical content as widely available as possible.

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Filed under San Francisco Museum & Historical Society

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