Introducing OpenSFHistory

by Woody LaBounty
Founder of Western Neighborhoods Project

OpenSFHistory is a program of Western Neighborhoods Project to make private collections of historical San Francisco images open to the public.

But OpenSFHistory isn’t just a website of old photos. The name is intended as a description, a directive, an expressed philosophy. We at Western Neighborhoods Project want history to be available, accessible, and even positively transformative. Being a small local history nonprofit, doesn’t mean we can’t dream big.

Western Neighborhoods Project started in 1999. The idea of an organization with a mission to preserve and share the history of western San Francisco really came the year before, when David Gallagher and I wondered how towns like Belvedere in Marin County (pop. 2,100) could have a historical society, or even a museum, but the Richmond District (pop. 59,000) was often unmentioned in books on the history of San Francisco.

Researching, writing, and reading history is time-travel, of course, but as WNP approaches its 17th anniversary I find myself wishing for a true time machine.

First order of business when I return to 1998—after buying as much Mission District real estate and Apple stock I can—would be to come up with a better name for the organization. We’re officially Western Neighborhoods Project, but a lot of people, even decade-long members, call us “Outside Lands,” which is obviously a good name, as why else would a successful music festival adopt it? We still disagree on the board if we’re Western Neighborhoods Project or the Western Neighborhoods Project. The WNP or just WNP?

“Project” sounds too limiting anyway. A project is something one plans to complete, with a finish line, an end result, and likely over budget. But we have not finished our work, and truthfully, never can.

Nothing has made this clearer than our acceptance this past year of a massive photo archive, perhaps the largest private collection of San Francisco historical images. The collector, who prefers to remain anonymous to the greater public, is sharing custody with us of perhaps 100,000 negatives and prints. The collection is the cornerstone of OpenSFHistory.

Our goal is the same as it has always been, concisely described in the two verbs of the WNP mission statement: to preserve and share the history of the western neighborhoods. With volunteer help from archivists, historians, and smart, enthusiastic newcomers to the world of collection management, we have processed and safely stored some 6,000 images so far. Most of these prints and negatives have been scanned. Some have been shared on our website (, our social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), at presentations (Balboa Theatre, Internet Archive), and in our quarterly magazine, SF West History. Many, many more we are now unveiling on this website, which we created for making such private collections public and open.

OpenSFHistory is a work in progress. We intend to add tools, filters, and better search functionality. There may be a wrinkle or two to straighten out. The important point is we are sharing (at the time I write this) 3,703 historical images from San Francisco history.

You will see that we have moved beyond our western neighborhood borders: photographs of downtown after the earthquake, family snapshots from the Western Addition, views of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in today’s Marina District. But there are plenty of west side images: Golden Gate Park, Ocean Beach, and the haunting sand dunes of the Sunset District.

We will keep scanning negatives and prints and adding to the site, but posting images online is just a first step. We’re a history organization. Preserving and sharing for us means more than just an archival envelope and online access to a digital photo. Each image is just a starting point so that investigation, interpretation, new research, and story-sharing can follow.

Project, then, doesn’t work as a word to describe what we’re doing. Even with a thousand scanners, a thousand volunteers, in thirty years we will not be “finished” with this work. Even with all the images online, the research evolves, the stories to share unravel forever, and the audience grows and changes in one of the most dynamic cities of the world. The best WNP can hope for is a smooth hand-off of this amazing collection to other researchers, librarians, and lovers of San Francisco history. Someday.

But today, we could use some help, which brings me to my second time-travel task upon arriving back in the late 1990s: encourage a WNP community from day one, because that’s where the opportunity to make a difference lies.

We were slow in engaging with the people who found our website or who happened upon one of our presentations. We shied from hosting our own events, nurturing our membership, and truly building a community.

Grants and institutional funding sources for local history are almost nonexistent. The support to do our work really comes from “regular people” who love history and the neighborhood and give a little each year. Because of our supporters and WNP members, we can take on the private collection, order the supplies to store it safely, and buy the computers and scanners and bandwidth to share it.

We’re still trying to do more, do better, with programs like OpenSFHistory. The extent of our success depends heavily on your generosity. Please contact us if you have ideas, connections, or resources to offer. And support San Francisco history, made open to the public, with a financial donation to this new and exciting program.