Toronto in Time

Those with smartphones may be interested in the new (and free) Toronto history app, Toronto in Time.  The app combines narratives, images, and physical space to present Toronto’s history across a variety of subjects, themes, and neighbourhoods.

I can’t really do an impartial review of Toronto in Time, as I was privileged to be paid for writing a handful of the nodes.  Also, I don’t own a smartphone, so while I can readily access the content online I’m not really interacting with the content in the way that the curators have intended.  (Although all of the content is accessible on the Toronto in Time website, so anybody with internet access can still full access to the stories.)  Still, I do have a few thoughts about it that I’d like to share.

First, looking at the map, you’ll probably notice a definite bias towards downtown.  It’s worth pointing out that this is only the first phase of the Toronto in Time project; the website notes that they are soliciting suggestions for additional nodes, which hopefully will be rolled out in the future.  History, like so many other things, is never really “finished,” and I think it’s important to bear that mind when looking at this app.

My understanding is that the initial phase was deliberately limited to a manageable number of stories, and that they tried to choose stories in close geographic proximity to one another,  so that users might be able to use the app to improvise self-guided walking tours.  Hopefully, some of the future upgrades will fill in the Toronto map, and share more of the history of Etobicoke, Scarborough, and other so-called “outlying” parts of the city.  As there are still many great stories absent from the project, why not contact Toronto in Time and suggest some?  The notice on the website advises contacting them via Facebook, but they also provide an e-mail address at the bottom of this page, which I presume may be used for this purpose by those of us who don’t use Facebook.

Second, as a web user, the content can look tantlizingly brief.  Clicking on a node provides some images and some text, but compared to some other websites it may look a bit thin in terms of content.  It’s certainly very different from the kind of history writing I’ve grown accustomed to doing for Heritage Toronto or Torontoist.  (Incidentally, the other two regular Historicist writers, Kevin Plummer and Jamie Bradburn, also wrote content for this app.)

What’s important to remember is that not all history writing is designed to be read in the same way.  I like to imagine that most of my other history pieces get read on a weekend afternoon by someone who is sitting at home, drinking tea; I am pretty sure that this is not how smartphone apps tend to get used.  I think of these Toronto in Time stories as being like virtual plaques.  Like a plaque, they cannot hope to convey all of the complexity that Toronto has, nor all the nuances of history.  What they can do, though, is present the tip of a history iceberg, and hint at the grand substance underneath.  Just like physical plaques, each of these nodes serves to introduce some intriguing aspect of the city’s history, and hopefully inspires the reader to learn more.  And I think Toronto in Time does a pretty good job at succinctly reminding us that a physical place, a subject, or an idea is not as permanent or as one-sided as we may assume.  One of the strengths of Toronto in Time, I hope, is that it presents history for people who like history, but who either don’t realize it, or who otherwise find it a bit overwhelming.

Toronto in Time is, in essence, a fun way that curious people can learn for free, and that’s makes it a pretty great thing.

I should also point out that projects like this, especially ones that are free to the general public, don’t just happen on their own.  It costs money to set up things like this, and a lot of people put a lot of work into this.  Please take some time to note the organizations who funded and co-ordinated Toronto in Time, in particular The Canadian Encyclopedia and Heritage Toronto, and let them know if you like it.