Clio App Maps History in West Virginia, U.S.

Jul 20, 2018

You know those historic metal plaques that sit along West Virginia roadways and describe historic events or the stories behind small towns? Imagine the same idea -- but in a digital version.

Five years ago, David Trowbridge, a history professor at Marshall University, created Clio, a digital history guide with more than 30,000 original entries from sites across the country. The app and website were recently honored by the National Humanities Alliance in Washington D.C.

Trowbridge is so passionate about this project, he started with $10,000 of his own money and continues to help fund it, with the help of donations and grants. He said he's trying to create a "museum experience ...  as if the physical place became a museum, where every building, landmark, historical marker, place where something happened is an artifact just waiting for you to explore it."

Clio is location-based and includes a text-to-voice function that Trowbridge hopes eventually to replace with real voices. The "discover" section calls up nearby landmarks and their distance away. The app's contributors, often from local libraries or historical societies, are crowdsourced and verified. They write short introductions for each site and longer entries with more detail.

There are also 370 walking tours on the app, 18 in West Virginia. Trowbridge specializes in African American history, and he created one tour in Huntington that celebrates the achievements of black residents and recalls their struggles there.

But what sets this app apart from Google or Wikipedia? The contributors are often locals themselves. And "you can’t Google what you don’t know you’re looking for. You can’t Google search ‘Oh, that monument I passed,'" Trowbridge said.

"This is sort of a search engine when you don’t know what you’re searching for, which brings back that magic and joy of discovery," he added. 

The app was recognized this month by the National Humanities Alliance in Washington D.C. , as part of its Humanities for All database that lists more than 1,400 higher education humanities projects during the past decade. Clio was one of 51 innovative efforts that the alliance profiled and featured on its website.

"It’s enriching life in the university and in the community," said Daniel Fisher, Humanities for All project director. "Including Clio was a very easy choice. It’s a marvelous project, and a wonderful gift from David Trowbridge and Marshall to the country." 

The app and website are free to users, but it costs Trowbridge a few thousand dollars a month to maintain. It is also supported by foundations and donations, including the Whiting Foundation, Knight Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities. Clio is part of the nonproft Clio Foundation.

Its content is strongest in cities, but through a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Trowbridge will hire Marshall students to conduct research throughout West Virginia to add more sites to the app, especially in more rural areas.