Walking Through History in Public


I used Clio to locate the Downtown Dallas Walking Tour.  To call this tour a mobile history site is a generous term.  While it does guide the driver or pedestrian on an 18 stop tour of downtown, it leaves a great deal to be desired.  The page layout is not sized to fit the mobile device, and many content items appear on each page.  One must navigate down to the bottom of the page to click to the next stop on the tour.  It does provide an audio guide, but it is simply a computer narrator voicing the written text.  While it keeps the tourist from having to read the information, it only provides place by place information.  Walking directions aren’t included.  One needs to follow the link on the Google map embedded in the page to get walking directions. This requires one to flip between apps and uses data to maintain a connection to the landscape.

Another drawback is that the information presented would be just as useful viewed from a desk as from being in the field.  The content is in no way connected to helping the user contextualize being in the landscape.

In sharp contrast is the Rick Steves Audio Europe Travel App that I have used in many cites while on research trips in Europe.  Rick Steves is an author and tour guide who has made a name for himself on public television and beyond.  While he is not what many would call a public historian, his reach for popularizing European history is extensive. Steves does local community history but on a continental scale.

The app is free and contains walking tours of hundreds of sites (museums and historic city walks) Steves has written about in his many publications.  Users can download the app and episodes before they go to Europe to avoid expensive data usage fees.  A vivid photo bookmarks each stop on the audio tour as Steves literally walks the user through the physical landscape, pointing out details with an engaging narrative.  Accompanying PDF maps that simplify the landscape help to place users in the physical space.  Steves’ excellent directions guide readers not only to take in a particular site but between sites as well.

While I realized that the scope and resources that have produced these two sites vary to extremes, I think it is important to note what it is about the Steves experience that works.  It is simple in its design and rich in content; however, that content is very focused on the audio experience.  Steves doesn’t expect users to engage their vision on the screen; he wants them to engage in looking at the history all around them.  Users are literally in the museum, and he is the docent.


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