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Site aims to be online storehouse of architectural heritage

Ever since coming late to the smartphone party in early 2012, I've been amazed at the number of good heritage architecture apps out there, and that's to say nothing of all the great websites that haven't yet found the time to turn themselves into an app.

The problem is, the more sites or apps about a particular subject, the less I'm inclined to use any of them; it's tough finding a good restaurant when you've got to first decide which of a dozen review sites to consult.

When it comes to architecture, however, the good folks at the University of Waterloo's Heritage Resources Centre (HRC) may have come up with a way to combat the web-clutter.

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"It's kind of hard for the general public to find information," agrees Kayla Jonas Galvin, 27, project manager of a "comprehensive" and cross-Canada website, Building Stories, which launched quietly in April. "If you want to find information about a building in Toronto, there are a number of places you could go, but you have to know about them."

So, she and HRC director Dr. Robert Shipley hope that (yes, that's ".co" and not ".com") will become "a place for everyone to put all those different inventories, those different images, in one space."

And they mean everyone: Although the HRC and their partners, Waterloo's Centre for Community Mapping and the Computer Systems Group, use proprietary software, Building Stories operates much like Wikipedia, meaning any grassroots group can add a walking tour they've created—whether self-guided or date-specific—and any individual can add a few of his or her favourite heritage buildings.

For instance, a visitor to Toronto from Newfoundland could use the site to find a bunch of heritage houses she'd like to photograph. Then, if she snaps a photo that highlights a neat architectural feature on one of them, she can add it to the listing if it's not there already. Or, if she finds a house in the same neighbourhood that isn't represented at all, she can add it herself. "It's an active process" that harnesses the power of "crowd-sourcing," explains Ms. Jonas Galvin.

"Traditionally, experts are who we turn to when we think about heritage, but we have a lot of volunteers in the heritage field and we wanted to be able to leverage their knowledge."

To that end, the team was careful to make Building Stories user friendly, even for individuals with rudimentary computer skills. While the ability to add a "significant amount" of information on a heritage property exists, there are only a few blank fields that need to be filled in to create a new entry.

There are also "hints" to help new users "think about things they might not have thought about," such as which official Parks Canada icons to plunk down alongside their listing. By doing this, she adds, "they're learning in the process."

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And if problems are encountered, the site has a very good frequently asked questions section that covers basics such as how to join, how to add an avatar or how to search content, all the way to more advanced procedures, such as how to upload a photograph of a building, add its Statement of Significance, or list a walking tour. As an example of how easy the process was, it took me just a few minutes to join Building Stories, an additional five minutes to add a link to the self-guided Don Mills "iTour" I prepared for Heritage Toronto back in 2010, and a wait of about 24 hours to see it appear on the site after gaining approval.

Currently, there are fewer than 1,000 properties listed, and only a few trickling in each day. To quicken the pace, Ms. Jonas Galvin and Dr. Shipley are attending conferences across the country, hosting workshops, and sending out e-blasts to encourage heritage groups and municipal governments to upload their entire registers. While it's free to join and start participating right away, governments or groups that are short-staffed can enlist the HRC to do the work as a "fee-for-service." This, it is hoped, will dilute the current Ontario-centric nature of the site, which is the result of beta testing with municipal groups the HRC has long-standing relationships with, such as Seaforth, Halton Hills and Goderich.

In future, it's possible related sites, such as Robert G. Hill's excellent Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada, can be intertwined with Building Stories to make it a true one-stop shop. "We do have a grant application to expand the functionality of the site to include narratives such as that," says Ms. Jonas Galvin.

The possibilities, it seems, are endless, provided all of us in the heritage community – and that includes laypeople – work toward making it so, since, on the Internet, static creatures quickly lose relevance while creatures that constantly grow and add new layers thrive.

"I think the mobile app is going to be what really makes people interested," says Ms. Jonas Galvin, "because people want to explore their cities, they want to explore places that they're going to visit and they'll want to come home and add sites to it."

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About the Author

Dave LeBlanc was born in Toronto and wouldn't have it any other way. At age 8, he remembers jumping for joy when both the CN Tower opened and Toronto finally snatched Montreal's crown to become the biggest city in Canada; he's been an architecture lover and Toronto advocate ever since.He attended Ryerson for Radio-Television Arts and York University for English. More


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