Monday, October 17, 2011

Review: Historical Marker Database App (for Android)

Roadside historical markers represent a significant source of historical information for many members of the general public, but their presentation format makes them uniquely difficult to use. I have been on many trips in which I passed historical markers, unable to pull off the road at that time, wishing I knew what they said. In other cases, I have read a historical marker, not realizing the significance of a particular piece of information that it presents until I noticed something else farther on along the road. At those points, I often wished that I could return to the original marker to re-read it, but was frustrated by the fact that it was then a great distance away. Most broadly, I am sure that there are a large number of historical markers containing information that I would find interesting, but I have simply not driven past them.

The Historical Marker Database App aims to solve these problems, and others related to the "marker" presentation format. Run by, a self-described "organization of self-directed volunteers," the project web site provides interested parties with an opportunity to add historical markers found along the road to a database of like resources. According to "A Note from the Publisher," the site especially caters to a community of individuals who make a practice of collecting and photographing historical markers the way that bird-watchers make note of birds they have seen. "If you're a collector," it continues, "consider uploading your discoveries to this site."

Since the amount of available information is quite large, I confined my attention to historical markers in my home state of Illinois. Most entries contain a photograph of the marker itself; a transcription of the text presented on it; a mention of the organization responsible for the marker's placement;  coordinates and a description of its physical location; and a list of other nearby markers. An interesting "Also See" section provides contributors with an opportunity to add additional materials, as seen in the case of "Owen Lovejoy Home" marker in Princeton, Illinois. In this instance, Bill Pfingsten of Bel Air, Maryland has taken the time to enter Owen Lovejoy's entry in the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

This is a crucial feature, I think. Clearly, roadside historical markers made of iron or concrete can only present a limited amount of information. In addition to bringing these pieces of data together in a database, the HMdb provides a crucial opportunity to add to the markers' necessarily concise treatments of historical events and historically significant persons and places. In the case of the Cherry Mine Disaster of 1909 marker, located in Bureau County, Illinois (not far from the Lovejoy Home), one Tracey Ristau-MacLeod has contributed transcripts of contemporary newspapers accounts of the disaster, as well as images presented in these publications. For another entry for a marker discussing the "Potawatomi Trail of Death," near Homer in Champaign County,  Illinois, a contributor has provided transcriptions of contemporary eyewitness accounts of the unfortunate Potawatomi people's experiences. One account, that of the artist George Winter, is cited as having been published in Indians and a Changing Frontier: The Art of George Winter (Indianapolis: The Indiana Historical Society, 1993). This citation answered the first question that came to mind when reading the account:  how do I know that it is authentic? The contributor is to be commended for provided a citation. From a professional historian's point of view, it would be ideal to have a citation containing the pages of this book on which this account appeared. But another, more significant issue presents itself as well, that of intellectual property. The 1993 publication cited is still very much protected by copyright law, and I see no notice of permission sought from, or granted by, the Indiana Historical Society.

Although the HMdb is the product of a not-for-profit organization, the matter of copyright and permissions may represent a potential problem for the project, and its developers may want to look into it in greater detail. Incidentally, the transcription provided concludes with "(GWMSS 1-17 [38b])" which certainly appears to be itself a citation of the materials from a George Witmer manuscript collection. These materials, as original manuscripts, are, to my mind, not protected by copyright law, and hence can be used for the primary citation, thus solving this particular issue.

The HMdb web site provides users with a variety of means by which they might review the large number of historical markers submitted to the resource. Upon launching the application, it immediately sought to discern my geographic location, in order to present the marker closest to me. A lengthy table of themes and states, as well as countries, presented at the right side of the site, provides an opportunity to review specific sets of markers, and is absolutely necessary in the site's general usability. A link to a list of counties within individual states provides another, very helpful, layer of specificity for users. Finally, a search box presented at the upper right of the page provides an opportunity to identify markers containing specific words or strings of text.

I find the general concept of the HMdb to be sound and significant. I believe that historical markers are generally an underutilized resource due to the fact that, unlike published materials, they have only appeared in a single physical location, often quite geographically remote. As such, they do not allow individuals enjoying them to return to them for further reference (without returning to the marker's geographical location). Their  locations also often prevent users from relating the information provided on one marker to that furnished by another, due to the fact that the vast majority of users simply stumble upon markers by the side of the road.

The HMdb turns the materials presented on historical markers into a far more useful collection of historical data subject to a more thorough investigation. I would suggest that the volunteers who have done such a good job of building this resource consider the possibility of arranging the markers presented into specific tours, in which travelers might visit the actual, physical markers in a specific order, while also possibly visiting other relevant historic sites.

In addition to making the information originally presented on roadside plaques more widely available to web users, the HMdb presents an important opportunity to supplement and expand upon these necessarily terse summaries of historical events in far greater detail. The presentation of related primary source materials can do much to add to the historical learning of HMdb users. I would also encourage HMdb contributors to add links to interpretive/secondary materials as well. Since transcriptions of books protected by copyright are likely to lead to legal difficulties, it may be wise to concentrate on links to books already presented online by Google books (or like projects), as well as historically-oriented web sites aimed at a public audience. As time allows, I intend to contribute links to the web sites that we have developed at Northern Illinois University to the entries for relevant historical markers.