Placeography: New technology, old stories


Just in time for the Minnesota sesquicentennial, the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) has developed an interactive, educational tool: The interactive Web site allows anyone to post photos and stories or information about any place. gives ordinary characters, buildings and events a place in the sun of Minnesota history.

It’s a wiki – what’s a wiki?

According to the website, “Placeography is a wiki where you can share the history of and stories about a house, building, farmstead, public land, neighborhood or any place to which you have a personal connection.” A wiki is a type of collaborative website designed to enable anyone who uses it to add or change content. The most recognizable wiki is Wikipedia, an on-line encyclopedia. But unlike Wikipedia, and even MNHS’s own MN150, where the focus is on notable historical characters, places and events,

People who access may post a photo of, and information about, any sort of place that interests him or her. Perhaps the place is a childhood home. A record of fond memories growing up there, can be included.

Since everything posted is available for public consumption, there are behavior rules to follow. According to “wiki etiquette,” users should cite sources, check facts, observe copyrights and “be nice”, not “mean.”

“I like the idea that everyone is a historian. We try to build that into our websites,” said Rose Sherman, Director of Enterprise Technology at MNHS.

Sherman says that there are three driving forces behind Placeography. The first is a house history class she teaches, in which students research the history of a certain building and write reports. A second impetus is the is the strong connections to places and their pasts that is characteristic of many Minnesotans. The third is a recent exhibit, which featured places on Lake Street in Minneapolis. was launched in September 2007 with the “Right on Lake Street” exhibit at the History Center. Visitors could log personal stories about Lake Street locations online. Although the exhibit closed in early March, Sherman says that the project lives on in
One of the memory-contributing visitors to the Lake Street exhibit was Linda Ashland, granddaughter of Emil Schatzlein, who built his saddle shop at 413 W. Lake St., in 1907. Ashland’s father and uncles would tell her stories of the place in her grandfather’s day, 100 years ago.
“If anything broke (on a farmer’s plow), …my grandfather would send one of his workers out to fix the harness when it was on the horse. Or the farmers would bring the whole team to the back of the store and he’d fix it right there. That’s how close the fields were,” wrote Ashland, who still runs her grandfather’s business along with five other Schatzlein grandchildren.
Sherman and Joe Hoover, Web designer and developer for the MNHS, did a search to see if there were other place history sites available in cyber-space and even though some were found, most were too narrowly focused for their puposes. They decided to give their own website an original, yet generic domain name that could encompass more than a single community. Sherman came up with the term “placeography”.
“Placeography is a place history wiki, but it is also a social network for others interested in place history,” said Hoover. While MNHS concentrates on Minnesota places, there is a contribution from a place called “The Sugar House” in Utah. “We’ve had enquiries from Italy and California, too,” said Hoover. “Placeography could go national and even international.”

The Placeography website links to different categories such as buildings, sites, structures, neighborhoods, architects and portals. A portal will take the user to another organization’s established website, such as the Richfield Historical Society. There is a place of the month feature, links to helpful resources, ongoing projects and available historic tours, all inviting the user to join in the fun.

An important feature on is the how-to-use section. Hoover has tried to make the website easy to use. “The bulk of users would not be comfortable with wiki code. We use the same software Wikipedia does, but Placeography uses ‘forms,’ places where information is entered, and then code is automatically applied,” said Hoover.

“If you’ve used Wikipedia before, Placeography is fairly easy,” said Madeline Douglass, a librarian from Minneapolis and Placeography contributor. “The people you really want to attract are the elders and their stories. So, especially in that case, the easier the better.” might just make anyone a local history expert. It also can inspire actual experts to become even more so.

“Yesterday I was in my front yard working in my garden,” said Sherman, “and some people walking by stopped to say that they were wondering about the history of the area in which I live and whether the boulevard was always as wide. Now I have to research my own neighborhood so I don’t have to say that I don’t know about it and admit that I work for the Historical Society.”

Mary Schoen lives and writes in the Twin Cities area.