Saturday, August 18, 2012

History Channel Puts Western Massachusetts History on the Mobile App

A song of ascents:
I make fun of History Channel
For its Ancient Aliens crap,
But credit where credit is due:
I'm trying its History app.
As my followers on Twitter are aware, I have been known to poke gentle fun at the History Channel and its sibling H2 for their steady descent into banality or outright intellectual bankruptcy. Whereas they used to run real documentaries, nowadays there is hardly anything worth watching.

We all have our bugbears decide which burdens to assume for the sake of the common good. For me, it's about vigilance in the face of shows on Ancient Aliens and history—or shows that don't even pretend that they have to do with history: "Ice Road Truckers"? "Swamp People" "Shark Wranglers"? (wtf?)  For Gordon Belt, Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library & Archives, it's the never-ending battle against "History Buffs." We're all allies in this great war on behalf of civilization.

But one has to be fair. The Channel still does broadcast some history, and its website and Twitter feed likewise pay more attention to its supposed raison d'être. I was therefore pleased to see them announce their new "History Here" app for iPhone, described as "an interactive travel guide to thousands of historic locations across the United States."

So I decided to give it a try.

It's a fairly simple little thing, though serviceable enough in its way.

You get a Google road or satellite map with little pins that lead to descriptions of sites (with driving distance, contact information, and URLs; videos, in some cases).  One can search by location, view sites on both maps and lists, save "favorites," etc.

 Checking out those that appeared on the screen when I used my home location, I found:

It's not always easy to tell why a given site was included or omitted.

In Amherst, of course, I expected to find the Dickinson Museum, as it has National Historic Landmark status and is our principal tourist attraction. I was pleasantly surprised to see a listing for the National Yiddish Book Center, on the campus of my own Hampshire College. But Amherst has, in addition to the 2 Dickinson houses, 5 other properties on the National Register of Historic Places, two of them open to the public: West Cemetery  (where Dickinson is buried, thus likewise one of our major tourist attractions—even a pilgrimage site), and the eighteenth-century Strong House, home of the Amherst Historical Society and Museum.

It's great that Northampton (or Florence, as the case may be) includes two sites associated with the Underground Railroad, but then one might assume it would also have included the David Ruggles Center for Early Florence History & Underground Railroad Studies. And any reason not to include Historic Northampton? Or perhaps the Sojourner Truth monument in Florence?

In the case of Springfield, the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum makes sense, not least because it is part of the larger, acclaimed five-museum Springfield Museums campus. But then why leave out the Springfield Armory National Historic Site

Looking to our west, it is eminently sensible to include Cummington's William Cullen Bryant Homestead but (unless I really missed something), Historic Deerfield, just down the road from Amherst, is absent. (To the east, Old Sturbridge Village made the cut). Delighted and relieved to find Arrowhead, home of Herman Melville—whose birthday and meeting with Hawthorne we marked this month—in Pittsfield, but then why not Hancock Shaker Village, located in the same town?

I was certainly glad to see the boyhood home of W.E.B. DuBois in Great Barrington, as well as Edith Wharton's The Mount in Lenox on the map. But then why not Chesterwood—home of Daniel Chester French, sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial and  Minuteman statues?

It seems that the National Park Service Heritage Travel Itinerary and National Register of Historic Places were the source for many of the listings, and that is as it should be. As the example of the Yiddish Book Center shows, there were obviously also other sources of information, and one hopes that the list will be broadened. The nice thing about apps versus books is that the latter can readily and continually grow in scope as well as robustness.

Summary: Given that the thing is two years old (the first incarnation for Windows, came out in 2010), one might expect more of it. Then again, given that the new app  is described as "free and ad-supported" (see also below), you get what you pay for. (The old one cost $ 2.99; this says something about our rising expectations of apps, among other things.)

In addition, there are sometimes practical limits to what sort of data one can conveniently collect and display in software designed for small handheld devices. I just took part in a workshop on digital mapping, so I am getting a better idea of what goes into the making of these things.

Balance sheet: It's simple and useful. I didn't find every historic site that I expected (to cover the entire country is after all quite ambitious), and I didn't find a great deal of technical sophistication or even information—but I also didn't find a single alien.

That's a start. Baby steps.

Update, 20 August 

History Here, a decent but no means distinguished app, just dropped another few notches in my estimation. When I first tried it out, the ads for some reason never appeared. Now, however, they're here. Annoying advertisements appeared at the bottom of the screen. One promoting an alleged iPad giveaway, was particularly annoying and intrusive flashing incessantly. As I said, you get what you pay for.

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