what is Layers of London? my views about this amazing project / LIS dissertation, part v

Present ‘Layers of London’ beta version website [click on image to access]
In my dissertation I’m addressing the question of how do we go about building a collection of documents on public libraries of London, to & from their staff and users, through interviews. As an essential part of practicing oral history in the digital humanities, I’m recording these interviews with the aim of housing them as a collection in the Layers of London website/web archive. In this post, I present: 1. what Layers of London is; 2. the way I see it, with references to my readings; and 3; why I chose it as repository for the oral narratives collection I’m trying to build.

The Layers of London project has currently two websites: an introductory/provisional one, which briefly presents what the project is about, and the first, beta version of what will soon be the official Layers of London website. From the ‘Welcome to the Layers of London project website!’ blog post by the project director Matthew Davies, we learn that:

‘This will eventually be one of the largest public engagement projects on London’s history, unique because it involves digital technology to engage people with heritage for the whole of London, over more than 2,000 years of history. What makes it even more unique is that most of the content for our new website will be provided by the public, created by public engagement and schools programmes and by “crowd-sourcing”.

Eventually anyone will be able to upload verified historical content to the website, linking it to one of the many “layers” of maps that we will be putting online – from the Romans through to the 21st century. In this way, people will be able to create their own “layers” of heritage, connected to their own parts of London, their own communities, streets and buildings.’

In a platform built from a series of layers, consisting of various historical maps of London including the Bomb Damage maps, RAF mid-20th-century aerial photographs, and maps from the 16th and 17th century, anyone will be able to add pins to these layers/maps with virtually anything: images, videos, transcripts, links, oral history etc.


Above, screenshots from present Layers of London beta website, showing a pin added to the Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The first one shows the pin’s content: an image, some description, metadata and links; the second one shows the pin on top of the merged layers of Google Maps and the Morgan Map of 1682; you can adjust transparency of the layers (or ‘overlays’) to see changes and permanencies. Eventually more ‘overlays’ will be added, like the London Bomb Damage Maps and the Charles Booth’s London Poverty Map.

A few great references helped me make sense of Layers of London and define better what it is and what it does. As a project that aims at attracting the general public’s involvement and engage people from all backgrounds in taking part, it makes sense that the project’s website doesn’t drown in academic talk or too much scholarly content, as not to shoo the interested away. But there is a lot to say about Layers of London nature and principle in terms of the digital humanities, new archiving practices, the Internet revolution in publishing, among many other fascinating issues. Here, I’ll highlight what I believe Layers of London is, based on four references:

It is an archive as apparatus, as in:
Giannachi, G. (2016). Archive everything: Mapping the everyday. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

‘The 21st century archive is no longer a space of neutrality, where the subject is put into parenthesis; rather it is the place where the subject intervenes, speaks up, takes on the act of remembering, often sharing very personal memories, and so changing the way that a given history is recorded and understood. This kind of distributed, often communal (or community-generated), archive is the stage of multiple, individual and collective, often interconnected memory processes, where inter-documents are continuously produced and shared, and where, as part of that process, new (hi)stories are written that affect how particular moments in time are perceived in the environment we live in. It is in the apparatus of the archive that subjects become historians of their own lives.’

First of all, Layers of London is an archival website that collects people’s interventions on itself; collects the stories and memories of the community, by the community, to the community. We can also identify Layers of London in this other description Giannachi provides, of archival websites that specifically use the ‘pinned map’ approach:

‘pinpointing memories and stories to locations, a tradition inherited from memorial culture, and using maps as a means to prompt the telling of personalised stories in relation to these locations, is … an increasingly popular and rewarding strategy to generate engagement with local history in that they can facilitate the creation of a sense of presence (and so also of belonging) within that history among a particular community.’

It is an archival website in the humanities, as in
Gross, A. and Harmon, J. (2016). The Internet revolution in the sciences and humanities. New York: Oxford University Press.

‘After and extensive search of archival websites in the sciences and humanities, we devised a system of classification to make sense of the diversity that now exists. We divided these sites according to their predominant purpose: to provide resources for scholarship; to store data for scientific research, to store scientific and scholarly papers and related materials, to create new knowledge through volunteer participation; and to codify existing knowledge.’

Layers of London is definitely a website ‘that provide resources for scholarship’, but if we consider that so much of human communication now happens in websites, then virtually any and every website is a potential resource for scholarship. Anyway, the easy layering of maps in itself is already an amazing tool for historical inquiry.

Also, it can be said that it is already ‘storing data for scientific research’—that’s what I’m aiming with housing ‘The Public Libraries of London’ collection there. And there’s also an option to ‘add a dataset’ to pins on Layers map. And it is definitely ‘creating new knowledge through volunteer participation’; that’s one of the website’s greatest aims, if not THE main aim.

All this to say that trying to ‘classify’ Layers of London is not easy, and that it is and does many things at the same time. Certainly, it is in tune with the current trends in the digital humanities and in the uses of the Internet by & for scholarship.

It represents the many shifts in scholarly publishing authorship, as in
Fitzpatrick, K. (2011). Planned obsolescence: publishing, technology, and the future of the academy. New York: New York University Press.

‘Although the digital has already begun to have significant effects on our work, both in the ways that we write and the ways that our writing moves throughout the academy and the broader public sphere, a full acknowledgement of the benefits of digital authorship practices for our writing, much less any further acceptance of the digital as a primary more of our work, will require significant shifts in our thinking about ourselves in the act of writing—what we’re doing, how and with whom we’re doing it, and the relationship between ourselves and the texts we produce.’

shift ‘From individual to collaborative’: Layers of London is big, and wouldnt’t even have been possible to be developed by a single person alone; it is part of these very recent efforts in the humanities to produce & work collaboratively, shifting the focus away from the single author who researches alone, to explore possibilities of larger projects that take advantage of the Internet and collaboration between scholars, each with their expertise; shift ‘From originality to remix’: Layers of London’s layers are historical maps that, layered, are able to reveal new histories and incite new inquiries; people’s pins, with recontextualised photos and other documents, can gain new meaning when mapped, compared, collected along others’ materials; shift ‘From intellectual property to the gift economy’: on Layers of London you are encouraged to share, and simply attribute if you’re sharing something that is not yours; Creative Commons licenses work perfectly in this collective, internetworked environment. Oral histories and personal narratives, once so sensitive and complicated, can now run free in websites and be accessed by anyone if a Creative Commons license is applied; shift ‘From text to… something more’: different from most humanities output up until very recently, Layers of London is not a monograph, published in a journal or book; rather it’s a website, with no ‘final version’, no peer review or editor, no end.

It is a HyperCity and a thick mapping project, as in
Presner, T., Shepard, D. and Kawano, Y. (2014). HyperCities: Thick mapping in the digital humanities. metaLABprojects. Cambridge, Massachussets, and London: Harvard University Press.

‘The prefix “hyper” refers to multiplicity, abundance, and heterogeneity. A hypertext is more than a written text; hypermedia is more than a single medium; and HyperCities are more than the physical spaces of cities. … A HyperCity is a real city overlaid with thick information networks that not only catalyze the present but also go back in time to document the past and go forward to project future possibilities.’

HyperCities is a project by the metaLAB of Harvard; it is not a single project but rather a continuing investigation and collection of ‘thick mapping’ initiatives from around the world; ‘HyperCities: Thick mapping in the digital humanities’ is the book about this investigation. I believe Layers of London is exactly an ‘hypercity’, an exercise of thick mapping fully commited to the digital humanities:

‘The investigation moves from aggregations  of data and high-altitude visualizations to the singularity of the human voice that personalizes and punctures any abstracted totality.’

‘HyperCities is about the possibility of telling stories, of narrating places, and of producing new configurations of knowledge in which every past, present, and future is a place. In this sense, mapping history is about curating places, conjuring and caring for ghosts.’

‘On its most basic level, “thick mapping” refers to the processes of collecting, aggregating, and visualizing ever more layers of geographic or place-specific data.’

‘Thickness means extensibility and polyvocality: diachronic and synchronic, temporally layered, and polyvalent ways of authoring, knowing, and making meaning. … By eschewing any kind of universalism, it is a kind of analysis that is intrinsically incomplete, always under contestation, and never reaching any kind of final, underlying truth.’

‘HyperCities is not primarily a “technological” or “computational” problem but foremost a “humanities” problem, namely one of memory, narrative, archival practices, knowledge design, and, finally, ethics.’

And why have I chosen Layers of London as house for the collection of narratives I’m building about the public library? Because of all of the above, and the following:

because it’s open: Layers of London is/will be a website without any kind of paywall or restriction for participation; anyone can upload a contribution to the maps, as personal as it may be—I love a description of an appendix operation performed at the Guy’s Hospital in the 1930s, from a man’s diary.

because it’s being developed by an academic institution and enabled by external funding, which guarantees stability of the URLs, and also gives credibility when trying to reach out to people’s participation; it also means that there will always be activity on and around the website, as scholars, researchers and students become aware of it.

it supports instant access, viewing and listening to contents, just by clicking on pins and play buttons; you don’t need any kind of identification or special reason to go about exploring the maps and pins (you do need a very simple log in to upload materials to the map). Can’t be simpler than that to access content.

the collection of interviews and people’s voices becomes part of a wider & deeper, or thicker, London,
and can be seen, accessed and considered in virtually infinite different contexts: against an eighteenth century map; along architectural plans of buildings or other narratives of people about their local community: possibilities are unlimited. 

4 thoughts on “what is Layers of London? my views about this amazing project / LIS dissertation, part v

  1. A very nice post which helps the reader understand the nature of the ‘Layers of London’ project. Two points occur to me. When the project director writes of including ‘verified historical material’, how will this be verified? Indeed, what does ‘verified’ even mean, if the project is including personal reminiscences and reactions to events? And if this kind of project is carried out over time with numerous cities, is there scope for linking them? Could for instance, in some way link the experiences of someone travelling from London to New York with entries in a system of this kind for each city?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. hello david! thank you! so, yes, great question: the content cannot in practice be verified; what exists already is a ‘red flag’ button in each pin that anyone can use to indicate ‘problematic content’, and then you can add a note on top of the ‘flagged’ one saying ‘so, that information there is not correct’ or ‘that actually happened in the year of 1940 not 1938’ or whatever. not sure if there will be someone specifically assigned to check the flagged notes.

      and definitely it would be quite interesting to apply this to other cities; maybe patters of people’s experiences at certain times in history would emerge? but if they can come up with a linking system that works even within Layers of London only, it would be quite nice. at the moment there’s only a search by keyword, a search by time frame (that is still being tested), and some collections. will be very good to have some tags and categories as well, to enhance linking!


  2. Another great post Mariana. I’d be interested to hear what you think about the advantages or disadvantages of the crowdsourcing approach to preserving , creating or remixing heritage vs perhaps a more managed central driven approach. I guess David touched upon with his question, but it Also the element of sustainability, obviously its a funded project so there is obviously an impetous for museums to contribute, but i’m curious about how beyond their blogs and twitter they are encouraging engagement from the wider public.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. hi thom, thank you so much! so first, about the crowdsourcing approach: I’m still investigating about it, but I’d say the great ‘advantage’ is having a view of history of a place ‘from below’, which may contest established narratives; I think that the great majority of these hi(stories) being uploaded to Layers wouldn’t have seen the sunlight if there wasn’t an opportunity like this to make them available—and I mean exactly a less ‘managed central driven’ approach, that allows people to use the platform more freely. mostly its made out of things that wouldn’t have been out there the first place, and Layers provides the opportunity to create + store. and finally I really don’t see any reason why someone would start uploading nonsense stuff to it, you know what I mean?

      and yes, about sustainability, being developed by the University of London plus funding (they are applying for more funding at the minute, which they will very likely get) does give some security, and it will kind of support itself from the moment people really embrace it. the institutions already involved include the big ones, like the British Library and the London Metropolitan Archives, but the people that I believe will keep it going are from the community institutions: the local archives (here is a Layers blog post about their involvement in the project https://layersoflondon.blogs.sas.ac.uk/2016/11/30/unexpected-treasures-in-london-archives/), the schools (Layers team is contacting schools from Barking & Dagenham to develop activities that teachers can run with pupils using the website etc), churches, charities and more (https://layersoflondon.blogs.sas.ac.uk/2016/08/02/exploring-local-partnerships-in-barking-and-dagenham/).

      so yeah, lots of hard work. thank you for this, it’s very useful to have questions like this, helps a lot thinking about the aspects of the project that matter to us (: hope everything is going fine with your research?


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