Monday, October 09, 2006

Total Waste of Time

I set aside time today to drive out to the Bentley Historical Library in Ann Arbor and do some research. My mission was to obtain the Sanborn maps for my great grandfather's neighborhood to use for reference for my novel writing next month. Bentley has the Sanborn Maps Online :-)

I wasn't prepared for all the hoops I had to jump through just to be able to sit down at a computer and view the maps, but hey, it's their game and they get to make the rules. I can live with a little frustration.

I got on the Sanborn Maps site easily enough but was frustrated early on because the web site is very kludgy. I'm not going to go into the details lest you think I'm a whiner, but trust me using that web site is an exercise in frustration and needless repetition.

My first disappointment was in discovering that the Sanborn maps don't cover every year or every section of the city (in this case, Detroit). After all the hype and praise I've heard about this resource over the years I expected to find a gold mine. Instead I couldn't even find my grandfather's house. Ever. Not on any map for any year for the city of Detroit. Further searching just compounded my frustration because I couldn't find my other grandfather's house or business either. Heck, I tried to find the workshop where Henry Ford built his first Quadracycle... 58 Bagley Street in what is and was the heart of downtown Detroit's business district. Nope. No luck there either. I don't know how it was determined which maps were necessary for the fire insurance industry (what the Sanborn Maps were created for) but I can tell you this, their usefulness is over rated. The maps are very hit or miss.

Oh, and did I mention that not all years are indexed? And there's no "search" feature either :-7

I did manage to find the address for my great grandparents' house. Yipee! Of course it was on a map of his street that was made 5 years after he was dead and buried and the house was sold, but hey, it's better than nothing right? So I zoomed in (yes, you can do that ;-) and saved the image to my thumb drive. Then I proceeded to click on and save all the maps in the surrounding neighborhood which amounted to about 10 since each map only covers roughly 3 blocks by 3 blocks. I wanted to be able to click on a map section when I'm writing to reference a business my characters might pass on the way to church or work. Saving these 10 or so maps took quite a bit of time because the web site is so kludgy. But when I was done I was satisfied that I had what I needed in the way of reference material, or close enough to the way the neighborhood looked at the time my great grandfather lived there anyway.

I drove home telling myself, "see, your patience with that kludgy web site paid off". In the end I got what I wanted.

But no. It was not to be. When I got home and put the thumb drive in my computer I discovered that the images I saved were too low res to print or to zoom in on. I was stuck with images I couldn't use. Not a one of them. The first image I zoomed in on at the library to verify that in fact I had the right page, saved just the way I'd zoomed in on it... all the street names had been cut off and only one half of one city block was showing. The other images where I saved the whole map are too small to read as is, too low res to print worth a darn (71 dpi) and too pixilated to read when you zoom in on them.

I remember now that I had the same frustration with the census records on Heritage Quest (same folks (ProQuest) who own Heritage Quest have the Sanborn maps). I had to save them in sections for the image to be clear and large enough to read. I guess I just assumed that they had chucked that way of doing things and would have marched on with technology. Bad assumption on my part. It's now obvious to me that they want to make it very difficult and time consuming for anyone to use their images off-line. Geez. They could have just said that.

I wish they would have just blocked the ability to save or print on the Sanborn Maps web site. Then I would have realized that I couldn't use the images for reference in the way I wanted to and I could have taken a little more time and just written out some notes. Instead my trip to the Bentley was a total waste of time.