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Local history goes high-tech thanks to NIU

October 6, 2015
Drew VandeCreek

Drew VandeCreek

Drew VandeCreek has proven that when history meets high-tech, it’s a winning combination for visitors to DeKalb and around the world.

“We recently completed a collaboration with the Ellwood House and Glidden Homestead historic sites that furnishes them with web-based video materials discussing their historical significance,” said VandeCreek, director of Digital Initiatives for the NIU Libraries.

“I come to it as someone who has a Ph.D. in history; I have always thought that historians could do a much better job of reaching the public, and I think the web and new technologies like this give us a great chance to do that.”

The Ellwood House is dedicated to educating people about American ingenuity, styles and values at the dawn of the 20th century and to connect them with the life and times of DeKalb barbed wire entrepreneur Isaac Ellwood and his family. The Joseph F. Glidden Homestead is dedicated to telling an American story of migration, innovation and philanthropy at the site where Joseph F. Glidden invented “The Winner” barbed wire.

The project VandeCreek produced is available onlinedigi and visitors to either DeKalb museum site can access the information by using their smart phone to scan a Quick Response (QR) code presented at each location.

“I really think that putting historical material on the web should be about reaching the public,” VandeCreek said. “There has been a lot of money spent and a lot of really good projects completed that put out sources that scholars would care about, but it’s not for the general public.”

In 2010, VandeCreek tackled a similar project for the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield. He said it’s critical as a historian – and as a member of the NIU community – to forge good relationships with local institutions and nonprofit organizations.

Glidden Homestead“It is just good practice to build good relationships with local institutions and nonprofit groups,” VandeCreek said. “It goes without saying that institutions, especially state institutions that rely on the state and the public for some monetary support, need to be as helpful as they can to the public, especially locally. But beyond that, I wanted to bring history to the public in new ways.”

The new materials allow visitors a new way to tour the museums.

“We were lacking an interactive and up-to-date way to tell our story, and working with the Digital Convergence Lab was a good partnership,” said Brian Reis, executive director of the Ellwood House Association. “Drew and his assembled team helped us to envision new content and then had it created specific to our museum site.”

Reis said the digital project helped augment Ellwood House’s story, and expand it beyond the gallery walls.

“As we were finalizing our updated gallery space and installing the QR codes, a gentleman walked into the gallery and immediately got out his smart phone and watched a video clip,” Reis said. “It was great to see someone so comfortable with the technology and watching our new content. Each QR code is so successful; each was created to tell a specific story related to Ellwood, Glidden, and the far-reaching story of barbed wire from its manufacturing in DeKalb to its use across the United States.”

The project website is available at and The videos feature NIU alumna Ashley Michels, who is currently a television news reporter in Denver.

by Jane Donahue