The Vault

A Map of Hundreds of Noise Complaints in 1920s Manhattan, and Four Other Stupendous Digital History Projects

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Here are five more digital history projects that delighted me in 2013. Read about the first five here.

The Roaring Twenties, by Emily Thompson, designed by Scott Mahoy; produced through the multimedia journal Vectors

The Roaring Twenties taps an archive of noise-complaint data from New York City during the 1920s and early 1930s. In the rapidly mechanizing city, people complained about a lot of things: trains, subway turnstiles, street cleaning, taxi stands, peddlers, trucks with their mufflers cut off. You can explore the history of city noise during the decade by browsing types of noise complaint or incidences of complaints over time. Or, you can see the complaints mapped on a plan of the city. The site also allows you to see actual letters of complaint that were sent to the New York City Department of Health, where they’re available.

What Middletown Read, a collaboration between the Muncie Public Library, the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University, and Ball State University Libraries

What Middletown Read, which launched a few years ago but was new to me this year, is based on historical records from the public library in Muncie, Ind., dating from 1891 to 1902. In 1925, sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd, on the hunt for a representative American city, designated Muncie “Middletown,” and wrote an influential book about life there. Using this database, you can see what Middletown’s “typical” citizens liked to read at the turn of the century. You can search for all of the books taken out during a particular time period (in December 1891, for example, Horatio Alger’s adventure stories absolutely crushed the competition, taking seven of the top 10 most-borrowed spots). Since the data that the library collected included patron occupation, you can see a list of books taken out by blue-collar patrons and compare it to a rundown of reading material borrowed by a white-collar group. (Read John Plotz’s longer Slate appreciation of What Middletown Read here.)

Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761: A Cartographic Narrative, by Vincent Brown, Charles Warren Professor of History and African and African-American Studies and director of the History Design Studio at Harvard

Historian Vincent Brown’s Slave Revolt in Jamaica project takes a complicated event—the uprising in Jamaica in 1760–61, in which about 1,500 enslaved people rebelled for 19 months before finally being subdued—and explains it spatially, animating the movements of the rebels, military respondents, and colonists on a multilayered map of the island. Brown points out that while we have a historical record produced by colonists and officials, we don’t have documents from the rebels. By seeing how they moved in space, we can get a sense of how they conspired, recruited support, and developed their strategy. The map’s animations are accompanied by primary documents in which settlers and officials report on the progress of the rebellion.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online Macaulay Library collects wildlife sounds and videos. Built over decades, from field recordings contributed by both professional and citizen scientists, this is a different kind of digital archive: one that documents the natural world, rather than the human. You can browse by taxonomy, but the staff picks page is helpful to those (like yours truly) who don’t quite know what they’re seeking. This 1979 recording of a bearded seal is, as staff member Matt Young says, “otherworldly,” with sliding, fluted whistles and keening hoots that resemble effects on the soundtrack to a fifties science-fiction movie.

Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, Digital Scholarship Lab, University of Richmond

The just-released Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States site, which uses Charles O. Paullin’s giant 1932 atlas as source material, takes vintage historical cartography and brings it to life. The digital “atlas” animates Paullin’s maps that were meant to show change over time (see, for example, the site’s treatment of Paullin’s maps showing the growth in Catholic churches between 1775 and 1890; select the blue “animate” button to see the maps in motion). For those interested in the detailed statistics behind the maps, the Atlas has been annotated, with popup windows offering the data that Paullin and his cartographers used.