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Lincoln goes mobile

December 7, 2011

While bustling your family between relatives’ houses, turkey dinners, tree farms and early-morning sales this holiday season, you might want to take a detour to Springfield to spend some quality time getting to know Abraham Lincoln’s friends and family.

Northern Illinois University’s Digital Initiatives and Digital Convergence Lab (DCL) have created a mobile tour for the historic neighborhood that surrounds Lincoln Home National Historic Site near the state capital in Springfield.

Logo of the Lincoln Home Mobile Tour

The Lincoln Home Mobile Tour combines cultural tourism with digital technology to convey the importance of preservation and the significant role that place plays in a person’s life.  When visitors with smart phones or mobile devices go to the Lincoln Home, they can now scan a quick reference (QR) code to access videos, images, and audio files that provide a more in-depth look into the lives of people who lived near Lincoln.

While creating the mobile tour, Digital Initiatives and the DCL cooperated with historians from the National Park Service and Lindenwood University to provide insight into how major themes in American history, such as race, gender, politics and religion, played out in antebellum Springfield.

Tim Townsend, historian for the National Park Service’s Lincoln Home National Historic Site, was very excited to see mobile technology being used to engage visitors. “The technology is a new way to present the information to people, especially kids, who might not read the exhibit panel, but might want to see it coming through their phone.”

Instructions to access the Lincoln Home Mobile TourTownsend says the videos provide a more detailed background of Springfield to help visitors understand the complexities of the city’s culture.  “People come here thinking that they’re getting a glimpse of ‘the good old days,’ and that was not necessarily the case.”

The Lincoln Home Mobile Tour shows that early residents of Springfield participated in activities like the abolition movement, which sought to free African-Americans held in slavery.

One tour video tells the story of Jameson Jenkins, a free black man who lived a half block away from Lincoln.  In 1850, Jenkins helped fugitive slaves escape north to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Residents also dealt with social and political issues like immigration, which are still contentious today.

Another tour video describes Lincoln’s neighbor Robert Reid Kalley, an atheist physician from Scotland who had a religious conversion and became a missionary and ordained minister. Kalley brought more than 600 exiled Portuguese Protestants to settle in Springfield and surrounding communities. This influx of immigrants and Kalley’s anti-Catholic sermons made him a polarizing citizen in the new capitol of Illinois.

Drew VandeCreek, director of the NIU Library’s Digital Initiatives, led the team of faculty, staff, and students who created the Lincoln Home Mobile Tour.  He sees these experiential learning projects as a way to help NIU students build skills and prepare for careers.

The videos are hosted by Ashley Michels, an NIU honors student who graduated in May with three majors, including broadcast journalism.

For Michels, hosting and helping to edit the Lincoln Home Mobile Tour was a unique learning opportunity that rounded out her NIU experience. “It allowed me to take what I had been learning in my classes and actually apply it to a meaningful project in the field,” she says.

Michels sees the project as a great way to set herself apart from other job applicants in broadcast journalism. “Extra training is key in my profession. The more experience working with the cameras and equipment, the better prepared I am when I walk into my first job.”

VandeCreek wanted the content of the mobile tour to appeal to a wide range of viewers, from families on road trips to students, teachers, and amateur historians who want to learn more.

He recruited Jeffrey Smith, a professor from Lindenwood University who specializes in public history, to write scripts that would bring the past to life. “I tried to think of the kinds of people I saw at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site when I visited for research,” Smith says. “I wanted to have stories that appealed to young and old, local and distant.”

Drew VandeCreek

Drew VandeCreek

Accessibility to a public audience was key to the project, VandeCreek says.

He hopes that the Lincoln Home Mobile Tour will serve as a proof of concept to show historians and museums the value of engaging people with digital technologies. “Digital history is public history,” VandeCreek says. “The goal of the project is to ensure that the technology enhances the visitor experience rather than replacing it.”

Smith admits that he was one of those historians VandeCreek needed to win over.

“I’ve gone from Luddite curmudgeon to a real fan of it in just a few years,” Smith says. “This technology can be a real gateway to all kinds of things that make a visit to a place so much more meaningful, so long as we don’t let it get in the way of the actual experience.”

VandeCreek noted, “The Lincoln Home National Historic Site does a great job of telling the public about Lincoln and his family. In discussing the lives of Lincoln’s neighbors, our project tries to add a new understanding of the context in which the Lincolns lived.”

Staff at Lincoln Home National Historic Site have been very pleased with the mobile tour.

Superintendent Dale Phillips says he didn’t mind being the first test site for the project. “We’re one of the first parks to utilize this technology,” Phillips says. “I thought of it as a tool that would be used by visitors after hours, but I’m witnessing a large number of visitors during park hours pulling up the site on their smart phones.”

Lincoln Home National Historic Site draws more than 300,000 visitors to Springfield each year, and in a time of shrinking budgets and staff cuts, Phillips sees projects like the Lincoln Home Mobile Tour as a way to continue sharing information with a curious public.  “This is the future of historical interpretation and historical research,” he says.

Every July, the National Park Service conducts visitor surveys. One of the questions they ask to measure the effectiveness of their outreach is Did you come away with an understanding of the park’s purpose?

This year, 100 percent of the visitors to Lincoln Home National Historic Site indicated that they understood the park’s purpose. Phillips thinks the score was, in part, a reflection of the Lincoln Home Mobile Tour.

He stresses the importance of fostering relationships between universities and historical sites. “The only way we can accomplish great projects like this is through joint efforts. Northern and the Park Service and other entities need to work together to make these important projects happen,” he says.

No matter what the medium, Tim Townsend sees public history projects as a gateway for learning.

Whether visitors are walking the path from Lincoln’s Springfield home to the courthouse where he worked, or learning more about him through short videos on a smartphone, Townsend says the goal of the experiences are the same, to help people better understand Abraham Lincoln, the man.

“Not many of us can relate to the man sitting in the shrine at the Lincoln Memorial,” he says. “But if they can see the place where he lived, the stairs he climbed at night to tuck in his children and go to bed, they can relate to him as a husband, a neighbor and a father. That’s the kind of experience that will help people better understand the president and what he did later for the nation.”

Lincoln Home National Historic Site is located at 426 S. Seventh St. in Springfield. To find more information on the park or plan a visit, go to

To learn more about the Lincoln Home Mobile Tour and other Digital Initiatives projects, contact Drew VandeCreek at [email protected] or visit

by Gillian King-Cargile