Monday, August 29, 2011

Review: "Cleveland Historical" App

Cleveland Historical, an app developed by the Center for Public Humanities and Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University, provides a wealth of information describing and documenting a large number of historic sites in the Cleveland, Ohio area. In addition to short, original text materials describing the history and significance of selected locations, the application provides users with an opportunity to review period images (including photographs and prints); sound recordings (including excerpts from oral histories and scholars' commentaries); and, in some cases, video materials (such as newsreel footage).

Cleveland Historical presents such a large volume of materials that I was probably unable to view all of them in the course of preparing this review, but I can say that, based on my limited experience with the resources, they comprise a striking example of what the combination of digital technology, wireless technology, and the Internet can provide to members of the public interested in learning about the history of specific places.

The use of a Google maps platform, capable of using GPS technology to detect a users' exact location on the ground, suggests that Cleveland Historical is meant to be used by individuals and/or groups moving about the city. As such, it represents a do-it-yourself historical tour.

Rather than presenting cultural tourists with a discussion that they cannot revisit, as would be the case in a tour guided by a human being, the resource allows for repeated review of interpretive and primary materials. Unlike audio tours sometimes available for historic places and museums (I used one at the Gettysburg battlefield about fifteen years ago, and again at the Field Museum in Chicago last year), Cleveland Historical presents historical materials in a variety of media types. Most importantly, the arrangement of interpretive and primary sources for use on a hand-held device like a smart phone can allow users to learn about historic places at their own pace, in the order they prefer. It is my sense that individuals accustomed to living with digital and wireless technology increasingly expect this flexibility in every aspect of everyday life. Cleveland Historical puts historical learning into this format.

As someone who has struggled to build an online resource including these types of materials, I know that the integration of such a large volume of materials into a technical framework represents a truly staggering amount of work. The developers are to be commended for their efforts, as well as the quality of their product. My review of the resource found no non-functional links or other such problems.

Inspection of the application's primary source materials reveals that the project developers have secured permission to use images from, in addition to Cleveland State University Libraries Department of Special Collections, the collections of the Western Reserve Historical Society and other local organizations. Once again, the securing of such permissions represents a significant amount of work.

With all of its many virtues, Cleveland Historical does present a few problems for the user. First, the documentation presented for image materials, which popped-up onscreen as an image loaded, closed too quickly for me to read and review all of the data presented. This is a minor matter.

More significantly, the Google Maps platform is difficult to use for individuals interested in learning about the Cleveland area from a location somewhere other than the streets of Cleveland themselves.  As someone at least somewhat familiar with Cleveland (I attended college about forty miles from the city), but unable to travel there anytime in the near future, I enjoyed Cleveland Historical in this manner. I am familiar with and curious about a number of specific places in Cleveland, but was unable to locate them in any way other than a process of trial and error, clicking on push-pin symbols on that part of the map where I supposed a place might be.

Cleveland Historical is detailed enough to serve as an unofficial reference work on Cleveland history. As such, it deserves a user interface best suited to this function, rather than a GPS-only interface. An already outstanding project would be that much better if it provided a list (perhaps in alphabetical order or something like that) of all of the individual sites/locations discussed.

Finally, as I read dozens of descriptions of individual places in Cleveland, I found myself sensing a truly significant historical narrative within the entries themselves, a story of the decline of an industrial America rooted in manufacturing and union labor. Resources as luxuriously rich as Cleveland Historical present both public and academic historians with a rare new platform from which they can share their understandings of these themes with a variegated public audience. Realizing once again that Cleveland Historical is a very valuable resource just as it is, I believe that the project's interpretive materials could address this historical arc, as well as other major themes in American history. In lieu of this large task, which would have added significant new work to an already ambitious project, I conclude that a brief introduction, perhaps presented in text and audio formats, can acquaint such users as might be interested in a larger overview with major historical dynamics evident within Cleveland Historical's abundance of source materials.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the writeup and critique. We agree entirely with the interface issues you mention and hope to address each in our next release, later this year. One thing I would add is that, in addition to the native iOS and Android apps, the content is accessible via desktop/laptop browsers by visiting We are also in the process of upgrading the mobile website to more closely match the functionality of the app and desktop site (as well as bring browser compatibility with BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7 and other devices. Again, thanks for the encouraging words and thoughtful critique. This is the kind of feedback that keeps the project moving forward.

    Erin Bell
    CSU Center for Public History + Digital Humanities