Exploring History While Social Distancing: Campus Tours and the Clio App

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The ways we preserve history for the benefit of future generations has changed enormously in the digital era. Yesterday we raised statues and planted roadside markers. Today we utilize the vast potential of the Internet to preserve history with online platforms. The COVID-19 crisis has further demonstrated the value of these digital resources for public historians. One of these platforms, the history website and mobile application Clio, has been able to respond to the pandemic because of its innovative ability to create virtual tours of museums and historic sites. The platform also provides virtual campus tours that include the voices of former professors and alumni, who narrate the complex history of a university campus. I was honored to build one of the first of these virtual tours for Marshall University, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. As a result, hundreds of people—from prospective students to alumni—have been able to explore our campus even while it is closed.

Clio first began as a class project for an American history course taught by Marshall University’s Dr. David Trowbridge in 2013. His original goal was simply to get students engaged in history, while also making their own contributions to the field. The app has since grown into one of the most widely-shared and public-facing repositories of history. The platform is available at no cost, thanks to the NEH and other supporters, and has grown to include over 35,000 entries that connect people to nearby history. Multiple entries can be combined to create a digital walking tour, which users can browse either at home or at the sites in person. One of the platform’s defining features is its multimedia content. Each entry can host images, videos, bibliographies, and links to other websites and sources of information. The entries are also connected to Google Maps and can display 360˚ images when available.

Clio updates continuously to make use of the latest technologies. Dr. Trowbridge launched Clio 2.0 toward the end of 2019. Among many new features, Clio can now host uploaded audio narrations and oral histories. Prior to 2019, the app came with text-to-speech software that recited the full entry in a disengaging, monotone voice. Now the app can go beyond the textual content of entries and share the voices and stories of tour guides, historians, and eyewitnesses. This dynamic feature equips users with an engaging way to experience history. Voices from the past play a tremendous role in helping us understand the context of our present and chart a course for the future.

Memorial Fountain Clio screenshot

Screenshot of the Clio entry for the Memorial Fountain, on Marshall University’s campus. Courtesy of Clio.

This spring I helped demonstrate the potential of this platform for sharing campus history. I revamped Clio’s walking tour of the Marshall University campus, which my classmate Hailey Horn first developed in 2017. The tour takes users on a loop through campus, highlighting some of the school’s most important buildings and monuments. Notable sites include Old Main, the statue of John Marshall, a memorial fountain for the victims of the 1970 Marshall Plane Crash, a one-room schoolhouse museum, and the controversial Jenkins Hall, a 1930s-era classroom facility named after Confederate General Albert Gallatin Jenkins.

Visual of Old Main Clio entry

Steven Straley used Clio to create this walking tour of Marshall University. The tour combines narration and oral histories from generations of students and faculty with primary and secondary sources drawn from the university’s Special Collections. Screenshot courtesy of the author.

With the help of librarians at Marshall University Special Collections, I added more images and links to sources. I also worked with our alumni association to add audio narrations for each landmark. We recruited more than a dozen prominent alumni and faculty members to share the history of each building and landmark. We included some of their personal reflections on the tour by adding audio clips along the walk. Highlights for me were listening to a local author talk about shopping for textbooks in the 1960s, and hearing the former CEO of Intuit explain how his education enabled him to succeed in the business world.

Some stories were deeply personal. One man reminisced about his time as a student reporter during the 1970 Marshall Football plane crash, while another person shared how she lost her father in the tragedy. We even found a recording of the 1972 Memorial Fountain dedication speech in Special Collections and embedded the speech into the tour. Now anyone walking on campus (or sitting at home) can experience the history of our university as told by generations of Marshall students and faculty, adding an intimate dimension to the ways we share history.

The new campus tour can be experienced from any location, and iOS users can download the tour for offline use. Those using the tour on the Marshall campus can choose a variety of navigation options, including a feature in which their present location appears as a blue dot and moves with them as they travel from landmark to landmark.

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the tour has taken on a new, unexpected role as a way for prospective students to explore the university while the campus remains closed. According to Dr. Trowbridge, “Now that our campus has closed, this virtual tour has been helpful for admissions and recruiting in addition to connecting people to the sometimes-difficult histories of our history.” A link added to the Admissions page on Marshall’s website has brought many more views for the campus tour. Some prospective students have even reached out to the school’s history department after discovering Clio.

Going forward, the Clio app will continue to add new features to enhance the user experience. Grants from various organizations, including the NEH, are allowing Clio to hire student writers who will add more entries and multimedia content. In addition, Clio recently received a $98,000 grant to collaborate with the American Foundation for the Blind to make the app more accessible to the visually-impaired.  Currently, the only feature Clio offers for the visually-impaired is text-to-speech software.

As we all forge ahead into uncharted waters of the pandemic, other universities, museums, and cultural institutions should find in Clio a valuable digital resource. It is a free, easy-to-use platform that provides engaging virtual access to places when in-person access is restricted. Even after the pandemic runs its course and we start to return to a sense of normalcy, cultural institutions should continue to find Clio a useful tool to engage the public with places and pasts.

~Steven Cody Straley is a second-year graduate student at Marshall University, and president of the Gamma Chi Chapter of Phi Alpha Theta.

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