Walking around her college campus, tablet in hand, Tova Williams may have looked like just another college student, checking messages or her Facebook page.
But Williams was holding history in her hands, thanks to an app developed by North Carolina State University Libraries in Raleigh.
The Red, White, and Black app allowed Williams to tour campus with an eye on the history of African Americans at NCSU. Where she used to see just another building, she now sees the struggles and victories of those who have come before.
“It’s a great reminder of people who were like me,” said Williams. “They had an experience and a history there.”
The app grew out of a popular walking tour that the school’s African American Cultural Center gives a few times a year. A map of campus, highlighted with information, pictures, and audio recordings, tells the story of African-American students and faculty in NCSU’s history.
One point on the map is the Witherspoon Center, the first building on campus named for an African American: Augustus Witherspoon. Through the app, Williams learned the center was also the site of months of protests in the mid-1990s against proposals to end affirmative action on campus and again in 2004 over lack of funding for African-American student organizations.
“I see something different now when I walk through campus,” said Williams.
Red, White, and Black started as a collaboration between NCSU’s Digital Library Initiative, the tour’s creators, and the library’s special collections. Genya O’Gara, project librarian for NCSU’s Student Leadership Initiative, said the app gives people access to materials and information they wouldn’t normally see.
“People who use the app probably wouldn’t have come into the archives and requested boxes of materials. They might not even know they’re there,” said O’Gara. “The app puts (the information) in a space where they already are, rather than trying to make them come to us.”
It’s not the first time the university staff has put together an app. In 2010, they released WolfWalk—an app with a historical tour of campus buildings (AL, Sept. 2010, p. 24). Cory Lown, digital technologies development librarian at NCSU, said they used the basic design of WolfWalk when creating Red, White, and Black, but added photos and audio to enrich the user experience. (“Wolf” refers to the university team, the Wolfpack, and red and white are the school’s colors.)
Although figuring out how to harness the technology can be a lot of work, Lown said it’s critical for libraries to make the investment. “We like to be early adopters of technology and pioneers in figuring out how to use it,” he said.
The idea for the app grew out of conversations between O’Gara, Lown, and Marian Fragola, the library’s director of program planning.
“We had the idea, and the atmosphere here at NCSU encourages it. People who are interested and capable are allowed to pursue their ideas,” said Fragola.
Fragola said one of the things that makes Red, White, and Black unique is not only its use of technology but also its willingness to tell stories that include difficult parts of the university’s history, like discrimination and segregation.
“One of the things I really admire about the walking tour and the app is that they’re not there to make the campus look terrific,” said Fragola. “Some of the stories are emotional. It includes stuff that’s really hard to talk about.”
But those tough stories have inspired Williams, who says using the app has encouraged her as an NCSU student.
“When I hear those stories, I see people who were successful here. It helps me keep my head up and keep striving to get my undergraduate degree,” said Williams. “It really makes a difference.”