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Putting Pennsylvania on the App

May 15, 2015

Twenty+ years ago when I was debating furthering my education and increasing my employment options, I had a choice to make–go to library school and become a librarian or enter a public history program and become a public historian/museum specialist.

Obviously I chose to become a librarian and have never regretted doing so. It’s afforded me with some wonderful intellectual opportunities and exceptional colleagues over the years.

Having said that, I do sometimes think about the career path less traveled. To soothe that professional wanderlust, periodically I’ll take an undergraduate- or graduate-level history course, read a good book on a historical topic of interest, or, of late, explore MOOC offerings through Coursera and other online platforms.

However, history is not just about reading; it is also about doing–researching topics, studying documents, drawing conclusions from your interpretation of the evidence, and writing and sharing these observations with the interested world.

Chances are, I’m not going to become a professional historian anytime soon, but I recently learned of another way to engage in historical study and writing–the website and mobile phone application called Clio (, which guides you to  local history information in your community or wherever you travel.

However, not only does Clio guide you, Clio also lets you be the guide.

I learned about Clio from my colleague, Dr. Monica Garcia Brooks, Assistant Vice President for Information Technology, Online Learning and Libraries at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. Dr. Brooks initially contacted Pennsylvania Libraries: Research & Practice (of which I am a proud co-editor) about writing an article about the resource.

Unfortunately, because our focus at PaLRaP is on Pennsylvania libraries and library personnel, we weren’t able to publish the article. Nonetheless, that hasn’t stopped me from letting other colleagues, in PA and beyond, know about Clio. And now I’m letting you know, as I think it is a resource that may be of interest to library, museum, and other cultural heritage organizations and colleagues in the Commonwealth.

(Author’s note: Dr. Brooks deserves credit for much of the text that follows describing the site/app, its development, and uses. Thanks to her for allowing me to generously quote from her original article.)

According to Brooks, Marshall University professor David Trowbridge created Clio as part of a class project. The resource now includes more than 6,000 historic and cultural sites across the United States, including hundreds in Pennsylvania. “Clio is now available as a free educational website and mobile [telephone] application, connecting the public with historical and cultural sites near their present location and offering links to resources where users can find more information,” Brooks stated.

The resource is named after the ancient muse of history, Clio (see image at left). Through the magic of GPS technology, Clio determines a user’s location and shows the user museums, landmarks, art galleries, sculpture, and historic sites nearby. “Each entry provides a quick summary, followed by a more detailed account that may include information about the creation of a monument or museum,” Brooks noted. “Entries also include images, audio/video clips, and suggested books, articles, and websites,” she added. Entries for museums and libraries provide addresses, hours, phone numbers, websites, and directions.

“Because Clio can pick up a user’s present location, it can guide the user right to a museum or historic site–even where there is no marker,” stated Brooks.

Clio is free for everyone to use, is nonprofit and non commercial.

As a history and culture buff, I love the idea of being able to find historic sites, libraries, and museums on my travels throughout Pennsylvania and the United States, and Clio allows me to do so conveniently, even when using my aging iPhone 4.

Searching from my home in Pittsburgh, I immediately pulled up a list of more than 40 entries within 25 miles of my location–including the Carnegie Museum of Art, Kennywood Amusement Park, and information about the infamous Homestead Strike of 1892 and the Steel Strike of 1919. Entries provided high-quality images and engaging descriptions, along with an estimated distance from my current location.

On a recent trip to visit family in Northeastern Kansas, I retrieved nearly 80 entries, including ones about a local pioneer cemetery, a historic hotel, notable statues, and details on historical events, such as basketball player Wilt Chamberlain’s efforts at integrating Lawrence, Kansas-area restaurants and businesses while he was a student at the University of Kansas during the 1950s.

What I love even more is that you and I can be contributors to the information that Clio provides. “The Clio website provides free institutional accounts to libraries, historical societies, museums, and other institutions so that staff members and volunteers can create, expand, and update entries,” Brooks noted. “Clio also provides special accounts for educators that allow them to create and vet entries with their students,” she added.

Members of the public can also create new and suggest improvements for existing entries. Each of these entries is placed into “draft mode” until they are reviewed by an administrator.

Dr. Brooks and her colleagues at Marshall are encouraging Pennsylvania institutions to add to Clio’s offerings. While the resource’s offerings are good, I do think there is room for PA cultural heritage organizations to offer improvements. For example, I felt there were some notable sites near my home that were unavailable in my search results. I live less than three miles from Claymore, the Henry Clay Frick estate in Pittsburgh; Westinghouse and Mellon parks, both of which owe their origins to Pittsburgh industrialists; the Carrie Furnace historic site; and markers indicating where General Edward Braddock crossed the Monongahela River and made his way to Fort Duquesne during the French & Indian War of the mid-1700s.

At my academic library, I could see making contributions to Clio as a way to engage information literacy classes, special collections and archives staff, subject librarians, and scholarly communication libraries. Beyond my institution, I can envision the Clio contributor role being used in all sorts of schools, libraries, historical societies, and cultural heritage organizations.

Just think of the fun to be had and the knowledge to be gained by students and staff. Pragmatically, they could learn more about using authoritative sources, proper documentation styles, plagiarism, versioning, and copyright. More importantly, they could focus not just on the “big events and big men” of American history but also could share the quieter yet still significant voices of the less well-known and -regarded. They could better understand the different areas of historical study (labor, early American, social, Civil War-era, “subaltern,” and more). They could witness how history is not static but changes over time–how historical interpretations morph as we learn more through documents and artifacts and expand our consciousness of people and events.

Thus, history becomes not just something you read about passively but something you engage in actively.

For me, being able to contribute to Clio appeals not only to my interest in history but also to my professional goals as a librarian–that is, being able to share knowledge with the world through authoritative information resources.

It still may take some more coursework and another career path to follow to do the work in the way that it should be done. Nonetheless, I look forward to using Clio and becoming a periodic, if amateur, contributor to it.

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