David Trowbridge is an associate professor in the Department of History and director of African and African American Studies at Marshall University. He is the author of two U.S. History textbooks, and a recent contributor to the Journal of American History’s interchange about the future of textbooks and teaching.
When serving the public, location is everything. What is obvious in the restaurant industry might be less apparent to historians, but we are most successful when we reach people at the moment they are “hungry” to learn about the topics we study. For many, that moment of curiosity occurs when preparing to visit a new city, touring a museum, or reading a historic marker. Can we rely on Google to provide the public with the best information at these moments? What if there was a way for historians to reach the public directly, help them discover historic sites and museums, and offer context so that they can make the most of their experience? Could we also connect them to related books, articles, and primary sources? How can we reach the public when they are hungry for knowledge about the past, and how can we offer them something more substantial than they might otherwise find?
Two months ago, I had the honor of coordinating a session at the annual conference of the Organization of American Historians on the “State of the Field” of Digital History. Each member of the panel recognized that “digital” offered new ways to reach the public, and there was equal excitement about the opportunities for collaboration between individuals and institutions. In this spirit, I’d like to share a collaborative digital project that reaches the public where they stand and encourages them to learn more.
Clio is a website and mobile application that uses GPS to connect users to the history that surrounds them. Clio is free for everyone, and each entry provides a concise description of a historic site and suggestions for additional learning. Entries can include video files and oral histories, as well as links to relevant books, articles, and websites for those who want to know more. Clio also provides directions based on one’s current location as well as hours of operation and contact information. Over the past two years, historians and their students have authored over six thousand entries around the country.
In addition to assisting travelers and offering a fun way to discover the history of one’s own community, Clio is designed to foster a deeper appreciation of historical causation. By learning the history of buildings, monuments, museums, and public spaces, we hope that users will better appreciate change over time in their communities and start to see history in everything. Because each entry can also include the backstory behind the creation of a museum or the preservation of a historic site, we also hope that Clio will inspire a deeper appreciation of the institutions and individuals that preserve and interpret our history.
Mobile applications have the capacity to reach the public in new and compelling ways, but the technology is only useful if the content is accurate and well-written. After experimenting with an open model, we crafted a system of selective crowdsourcing. Clio grants contributor privileges to credentialed historians and provides special accounts for libraries, historical societies, museums, and other institutions. Each entry is Clio is “locked,” with suggested improvements and new entries from the public being placed in draft mode where they await review and approval by an instructor, administrator, or authorized contributor. The system also preserves each version of every entry and makes these versions available to all users.
Clio also provides special accounts for educators that allow them to create and vet entries with their students. The classroom accounts include guides for students and instructors, as well as an intuitive administrative system that allows instructors to view, edit, provide feedback, and publish each of their student’s entries. When published, each entry is attributed to the student(s), the university, and the instructor. Instructors have incorporated Clio into their classrooms in a variety of ways. Students in a survey course tend work on a single entry over the course of a semester, while history majors and graduate students tend to take on more ambitious projects. Understanding that hundreds of people will rely on their entries, most students actively seek feedback and appreciate the importance of revision.
Instructors who incorporate Clio into graduate and undergraduate courses report that their editing skills have improved as they guide students through the revision process. They also report great satisfaction in seeing students apply the full measure of their creativity to projects that matter to them. I’ve always enjoyed discovering new things and taking my students along for the ride, but my best moments in teaching occur when I’ve prepared them to take the wheel. While it would be an exaggeration to say that I have enjoyed grading every entry, I’ve learned something new from each of my students.
Mobile devices suffer from a number of limitations, yet the ubiquity of these little machines and their capacity to reach the public offer some incredible possibilities. A mobile application such as Clio can spread awareness of historic events that have not yet been commemorated by monuments and markers. While it takes years to raise funds and secure approval of historic markers, a historian can create several Clio entries in a single afternoon. In addition to offering the freedom to provide multiple perspectives, these entries can include photos, oral histories, and videos. Digital entries can also include links to books and articles at the precise moment when one’s sense of place has inspired curiosity about the past.
Libraries, historical societies, and museums have used institutional accounts to create entries related to local history. We’ve also partnered with various history departments, museum studies programs, and organizations such as the Appalachian Studies Association, offering credit-bearing internships for students who create and improve entries on topics related to their research interests. We hope that Clio will provide opportunities history majors and graduate students to author entry-level publications, as well as service learning projects for instructors, honorary societies, and university organizations.
The editors have asked that I speak briefly about the process of launching a project that could not possibly succeed without the help of others. In some ways, this is the most exciting aspect of digital history—if a project rewards each participant, it can grow beyond the meager resources of a single instructor or institution. In the case of Clio, those rewards might come from sharing research on a treasured topic, spreading awareness of an endangered historic site, or working with students to share local history. Recognizing the near-impossibility of covering the entire United States, we built Clio as a collaborative venture that individuals and institutions can use to share and promote their work. Recognizing the challenge of obtaining funding, we also built Clio as a resource that can support the endeavors of others.
For example, the Knight Foundation awarded a grant to Marshall University’s Special Collections to obtain, digitize, and interpret materials related to African American history. As part of the application, the library is using Clio to share these resources and information with the public. The grant has led to the creation of compelling entries that utilize and link the library’s growing collection of oral histories, photos, and digitized newsreel footage. We hope that other institutions might use Clio to support their mission of research and public outreach, creating entries that connect the public to their grant-supported work.
I hope that readers of this blog will visit Clio and consider what she might become. The website and mobile application get a little better each day as people who care about history create and improve entries. We are always looking to improve the functionality and design of the website and mobile application, including interactive tours and ways to incorporate other devices. If you would like to create and improve entries, we hope you will create an instructor or institutional account at www.theclio.com If you are interested in internship opportunities for students, or if you have questions or ideas related to what Clio might become, please contact me via email or Twitter at firstname.lastname@example.org or @thecliodotcom