Archives ‘on the go’: ‘What Was Here?’ uses technology to bring content from the ‘research room’ into the wider world, for self-directed exploration.


In June 2019, the East Riding Archives (Beverley, East Yorkshire, England) officially launched its new app, called ‘What Was Here?’. This marked the culmination of a 4-year journey in which we had sought to find new ways of engaging audiences with archives in a digital age.

It was June 2015 when I first conceived the idea for a mobile app that allows people to view what a place looked like, while stood in that location, using archive photographs.  I was on my way to work when I passed a beautiful meadow and recognised it as the location of an image from our collections, which featured some buildings that are no longer standing.  Immediately, I thought not many people will realise ‘what was here’ and, in that moment, with smartphone in hand, an idea was born.


Generally, if someone is interested in viewing material preserved in an archive it is necessary to either visit in person or request that copies be posted or emailed.  Whilst some items may be online, it can sometimes take diligent research to identify relevant web resources and items of interest.  This arguably creates barriers to access, primarily physical, but also cognitive, that can cause archival material to be the preserve of the discerning researcher and preclude many from ever seeing historic items they would otherwise have found fascinating.  One of the key drivers of ‘What Was Here?’ has always been to remove those barriers and appeal to broader audiences on the premise that we have a fundamental curiosity about the past, which makes archives relevant to everyone.

Concept & functionality

The ‘What Was Here?’ app involves archive photographs plotted onto a Google Maps base map, allowing users to go and explore points of interest and compare past with present by viewing the historic image from where it was taken.  This self-directed exploration element is combined with guided heritage trails that include route maps, directions, and GPS push notifications.  An augmented reality feature in trails, called ‘Camera View’, generates an enhanced comparative experience by using the device camera to overlay and align the historic image with the modern scene and toggle the transparency with a slider. If users are particularly fond of an image they also have an option to ‘Buy Prints’, linking back to our e-commerce website ‘East Riding Photos’ ( and so facilitating the purchase of copies of archival content as gifts, souvenirs, or wall décor for local businesses.  The platform intentionally supports a range of potential uses including tourism, education, family history, exercise, reminiscence, or simply general interest.  Having a commercial offer available is also important to the user experience as it enhances engagement and sense of ownership.

The photographic element marks Phase 1 of the app’s rollout, with Phase 2 currently in development.  This 2nd phase focuses on historic maps overlaid onto the base map in layers of ‘time’ according to date e.g. 1700s, 1800s and is again based on the use of a transparency slider to phase between the past and present for instant visual comparison.


From the outset, my concept has been to provide access via a base map, with archive items geo-referenced onto it.  Historic photographs and maps were earmarked as baseline content because I felt these lent themselves most readily to the geo-referencing aspect and intuitively believed them to be most popular with mainstream audiences.

One of the key challenges was identifying suitable photographs with no known copyright restrictions and plotting their coordinates.  This was achieved with over 1400 images across the East Yorkshire region. Obviously, it is not possible to be 100% accurate with every image, which is partly why a ‘Contribute’ feature was added to the platform, allowing users to make suggestions for refinement to the map coordinates.  This should also allow us to tap into the rich photographic collections of private individuals by encouraging the donation of their material.  Alongside the photographic content, the proposed method of presenting archival maps has produced the most significant developmental challenge as the source material is high resolution and data-heavy, so needs to be condensed and packaged in a user-friendly manner.  Once this work is complete it promises an exciting new way of accessing maps from the Archives.

The process of moving from concept to development, and finally to delivery has taken four years, the first three of which were spent in convincing stakeholders that my concept was a viable solution.  Our Archives service operates within a local government setting, where budgets are often constrained, so a rigorous procedure was followed in order to win corporate approval, before any consideration could be given to procurement and development.  This was a test of my persistence and belief in the concept, but in this digital age, where access to information is driven by engagement with apps and the internet, I consider it reticent for an archive not to have the means of engaging users digitally.  It was the belief that this was vital for service provision, as much as my passion for the concept, that saw this project through to its fruition.


The ‘What Was Here?’ concept appeals to our fundamental curiosity about the past and its relationship with our surroundings, placing archives at the centre of that user experience.  However, as with any digital innovation, the level of public awareness of the app’s availability is vital to its success.  In its first six weeks, the ‘What Was Here?’ app received over 1000 downloads on Play Store (Android) in which it trended at No.10 in the ‘Travel & Local’ category, placing it above some major commercial apps.  This is an encouraging start, providing affirmation that the concept has popular appeal, and statistics from the App Store (iOS) have yet to be added to this figure.  In relative terms, the marketing has been on a low budget, and small scale, so with future plans for increasing the promotion it is anticipated that growth in uptake could follow.  My hope is that historic photographs and maps will help the app to gain traction with a mainstream audience and allow for a diverse range of archival content to be hosted on the platform, including audio and video, with other heritage organisations getting involved and ultimately expanding the base map.  Enjoyment and learning should be at the heart of the user experience, and it is a pleasure to consider that we are using archives to deliver that to people in the wider world.  Conversely, the ‘What Was Here?’ app is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of archival content held in the repository, so it should also act as a useful advertisement, pointing people towards resource availability in the research room.  With this technology, we now have the ability and opportunity to transform how people engage with archives, creating a mainstream tool for learning and exploration.

‘What Was Here?’ is available to download free on Google Play and the App Store (search ‘what was here’).  For more information, visit


Featured image was taken by Samuel Bartle

“With Map Warper we can turn pixels into real geographic information”: Interview with Asa Letourneau, at Public Record Office Victoria

Asa Letourneau is an Online Engagement Officer at Public Record Office Victoria (PROV)—the State Government Archives of Victoria, Australia. He specialises in creatively using technology to encourage user engagement and promote archival collections. Recently, Asa led a project to implement a new map geo-referencing application service called the PROV Map Warper.

Archivoz’s Evanthia Samaras spoke with Asa to learn about the Map Warper service and PROV’s cartographic collections.

(Archivoz) Can you please describe what the PROV Map Warper is, and what map rectification is?

(Asa Letourneau) With Map Warper we can turn pixels into real geographic information by layering our historic maps and plans onto a web mapping tool. This process, called rectification, allows us to visualise how places have evolved over time. Very simply, the user places markers or ‘ground control points’ on the historic map and on corresponding points in the exact same location in a real-world, online map. The open source Map Warper software then assigns latitude and longitude values to those points as well as the x/y position of the pixels in the map image corresponding to those points. The result is an overlay of the historic map image on top of the contemporary world in the correct location.

Screen grab of the PROV Map Warper tool

Rectification using the PROV Map Warper

(Archivoz) Why did you develop the tool? What benefits does it provide to PROV and users?

(AL) The goal was to make it as easy as possible for our users to find maps and parish plans in our collection. One of the major barriers to finding historic maps and plans is that they use historic names no longer known or used in Victoria. Most of our users aren’t historians or archivists. However, if you create metadata that associates the historic name with its contemporary location name—or even better its latitude and longitude co-ordinates—researchers will be able to search for these historic records by using the modern location names they are more familiar with. Plus, now with the Map Warper tool, they can also scroll across a modern-day map to find relevant historical maps and plans in the PROV collection. Importantly, this project also benefits PROV as it is feeding geospatial data back into our systems to enrich our records.

(Archivoz) How did you go about developing the Map Warper platform at PROV? What was the process you undertook?

(AL) The process was tackled in two stages. The first stage involved a team of volunteers compiling geospatial metadata for thousands of parish plans including the key data, contemporary equivalent location names for historic parish names and latitude/longitude co-ordinates for contemporary locations. The second stage involved liaising with Tim Waters, a freelance geospatial developer based in the UK. I worked with Tim to build a PROV version of his own Map Warper site (he also built one for the New York Public Library some years ago). Once the PROV site was built and tested, content was imported and crowd sourcing of rectification began.

(Archivoz) Can you please provide some more information about the specific software used to develop the PROV Map Warper? Can other archives use it too?

(AL) Tim Waters’ open source Map Warper software rectifies and overlays historic maps on a base map of the contemporary world. The base map used is not Google Maps but instead Open Street Map that is non-proprietary and built by a community much like Wikipedia. Libraries and other institutions have used it, including the New York Public Library, National Library of Australia, Harvard, Stanford Universities, Leiden Archives (in The Netherlands), The Department of Education and the National Environment Protection Authority (US Federal Government), and Wikimedia Commons.

(Archivoz) How has the PROV Map Warper been received so far?

(AL) The service was launched on 12 June 2019 via a blog post on the PROV website. As of late July, 2,726 maps have been rectified and 206 user accounts have been created to do this, which is a fantastic result so far.

(Archivoz) What are your future plans for the PROV Map Warper?

(AL) In the future we hope to link historic maps and plans in our archive catalogue straight through to their overlay view in the PROV Map Warper and vice versa. To do this we will replace the current Map Warper unique identifiers for each Map with the PROV unique ‘Record Item’ identifiers (found within the landing page URL for the record in the catalogue). While we are offering thousands of parish plans as our initial content for rectification, we have already drawn up a list of possible future cartographic series. These include the Historic Plans Collection, the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works plans and aerial photographs from a number of record series (once the photographs have been digitised). Given that Map Warper comes with an API, it would be useful to explore to what degree it could be used to manage imports and exports of content programmatically. For example, we could provide access to developers and other GLAM institutions. All of this has yet to be determined but these options illustrate the potential and contributions that PROV Map Warper could make in the future.

(Archivoz) Finally, where should people go for more information about Map Warper?

(AL) People can go to the PROV website and read the ‘How to find parish plans’ blog. This blog features a video about how to use Map Warper and information about how to sign up to help us rectify maps and plans in our collection.

Banner image credit: ‘Ballarat East -12 Township Plan, Imperial measure 5031’ in VPRS 16171 Regional Land Office Parish and Township Plans Digitised Reference Set, Public Record Office Victoria.