Reviewed December 2018
Carli Spina, Associate Professor & Head of Research and Instructional Services
Fashion Institute of Technology
Urban Archive is a free, location-based mobile application that connects users to local history, archival images, and events in New York City. Currently only available for iPhones running iOS 10 or above, the app offers a number of ways to interact with materials related to the user’s current location. When users open the app, they are presented with a map of New York City covered in purple dots representing archival content related to locations throughout the city, as well as a list of options to explore what is nearby, new content, pre-planned walks, themed lists, and local organizations. Additional features elsewhere in the app highlight events that happened “Today in History” as well as options to create “To Do” and “Visited” lists that help users track their activities. When users are at a featured location, they have the ability to check in, which adds the location to the “Visited” list, and also an option to create and share a photo recreation of the location today. Combined with the app’s intuitive and modern interface, this makes for an enjoyable user experience.
Though in some ways reminiscent of the OldNYC app, Urban Archive’s content is more extensive. Many of the images included in Urban Archive have captions that provide additional historical context and even current information about the site in question. The additional content, such as the pre-planned walking tours, offers a way for users to engage with local history in a fun and user-friendly way. The tours have clear maps, manageable walking distances, interesting historical images from a variety of periods, and an approachable tone that will be appealing to both casual tourists and those with a more developed interest in local history. For cultural heritage institutions in or near New York City, these features provide another way to share the institution’s resources or offer outreach to local communities.
The app would not be as impressive as it is without the content shared by its partner organizations. Over 50,000 images from more than twenty organizations, such as the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Museum of Chinese in America, the New York Public Library, the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, and the New York Transit Museum, serve as the backbone of the app. This rich collection is continually being supplemented with new content and, according to their website, Urban Archive is open to both new partner organizations and submissions from individuals. The website also offers a way to submit additional information about any of the images found in the app, though it is not clear whether or when these submissions are added to the app or how they are vetted. It also is not clear whether information submitted for this feature is sent to the institution that contributed the image. Unfortunately, the amount and kind of information and metadata available varies from image to image depending on its source. Another limitation of the app is that there is no way to search for a location by name or date. This makes navigating to known historical sites within the app more difficult, particularly for those who are not familiar with the geography of New York City. Combined with the inconsistent metadata, this lack of a search feature makes the app more suited to tourists and those casually interested in local history as opposed to researchers.
Urban Archive is a user-friendly and engaging tool for interacting with archival materials related to the history of New York City, although it is limited by its focus on only New York City history and by the fact that it is only available on iPhones. However, with images, lists, tours, and partners being added on an ongoing basis, it is an app that users can return to again and again for a rich and novel perspective on New York City.