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Are National Park Brochures Beginning to Rely on the Internet For Depth?


The Gateway Arch at Jefferson National Expansion Memorial celebrates America's westward expansion, but the memorial's brochures give slight reference to explorers Lewis and Clark who led the way for that expansion. NPS photo.

While the Internet is a wonderful tool for research, are some brochures to national parks beginning to rely too much on cyberspace for depth of interpretation? If you compare old and new brochures from Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, it sure seems like it.

Visit St. Louis and a tour of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial opens the door ajar to the history of this country's westward expansion under President Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, it was Jefferson's dispatching of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the West that opened the rest of the continent to American expansion.

And yet, over the recent years the role Lewis and Clark played in that westward expansion has been minimized in the memorial's brochures. In the 2004 brochure, this is the focus the government takes on Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery journey to discern just exactly what President Jefferson had purchased from the French via the Louisiana Purchase:

But what had Jefferson bought? He sent the Lewis and Clark Expedition to find out, and it left St. Louis in the spring of 1804. Pushing against the Missouri's muddy current was hard, and the hot, mosquito-infested summer was a good introduction to western travel. Lewis and Clark spent the first winter at an Indian village in North Dakota. There they were joined by a young Indian girl, Sacagawea, who was to be a definite help on the journey, though not the indispensable guide that later myths made her.

Spring 1805: they began again, up the Missouri. There were ‘firsts’ almost daily: the first grizzly to be scientifically described, the first pronghorn, the first mountain sheep. Wool gave way to buckskin; equipment wore out and was replaced with wilderness substitutes. The Missouri became a mountain stream, then gave out altogether. They purchased horses from the Indians. (Often the expedition depended on Indians, for shelter, food, guidance, and transportation.) Also there was diplomacy, as they informed the Indians of the new U.S. sovereignty.

Now they were crossing the Rockies. What had been blank spaces on maps in St. Louis turned into great cliffs, tangled timber, and rushing rivers. The two-week forcing of the Bitterroot Mountains, in snow, was the worst hardship of the whole journey. But they made it.

Compare that text to what's contained in the 2008 brochure, which gives more copy to how the steel Gateway Arch was created than on what Lewis and Clark accomplished:

The period of westward expansion began in earnest with explorers who set out from the St. Louis area: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their Pacific Ocean expedition (1804-1806)...

And that’s it. One part of one sentence.

It’s a remarkable change, but just a glance at the two brochures shows that the 2004 version is much more text intensive that the 2008. A rough count (not including photo captions) shows about 2,300 words in the former, and 1,300 words in the latter. The latter, on the other hand, has bigger graphics: The entire background of the newer brochure’s front side is an evening photograph of the Gateway Arch, over which the text is printed, and while the brochure has fewer images than the 2004 edition, they are almost all larger.

Textually, the newer brochure seems to be surrendeing its educational mission to the Internet, directing readers more than once to for more info, while the web is not even mentioned in the older brochure.

And that difference may be part of the thinking behind the newer design: People turn to the web for information, so why try to compete? Instead, the newer brochure touches on a variety of topics, any one of which can be further explored on the website – assuming, of course, that the readers have access or will remember to check out JNEM once they get home from their visit.

So here are some questions about National Park Service brochures in general:

* Are we seeing a similar change in brochures from other NPS sites?

* Are the brochures – old or new – performing a useful purpose? And what should that purpose be: Educational? Promotional? If a mix, then what should the balance be?

* How are changes in the brochures reflecting the current state of the public and the republic?

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is the only site where I now have an old and new brochure. I’m hoping my fellow Travelers have multiple samples from other places and can do some more comparisons.


I've found likewise, that the newer park brochures tend to be beautiful, but light on facts and details. At one time they were a major resource that I used when labeling my photos and writing articles on the parks I visit. Now I find I have to dig much deeper; often I am digging through my files looking for a copy of an older brochure!

Unfortunately, many of the official park websites are not much better than the brochures. They often have categories set up for things I want to research, but once within those category there is often little actual content. A common example I run into is I'll be looking at a photo I took on a visit with a flower or animal in it that I am unfamiliar with and want to identify. Almost every park website has a category/directory for "Nature & Science" which almost always has sub-directories for "Animals" and "Plants". But often there are only a few photos of animals or plants shown in those directories. There are some outstanding exceptions, of course. Hopefully this will change with time and expanded content. Fortunately I have found that I can almost always get an interpreter or other professional at the park to help me out if I send an email to the park information email address, along with my photo. A big thanks to the park staffs for that service!!!

I'm not going to defend the JEFF brochure, which goes too far in condensing a key reason for the site.

But the idea of stripping down the basic brochure is OK. The brochure has a very basic function for people who are on site: here's the map, the hours, parking and bathrooms, and perhaps "three things you need to know about the importance of this NPS unit." Ideally it will spark curiosity.

If it does spark curiosity, then where does the visitor go? The visitor center, roadside signs, and self-guided walks for one. But the NPS seems to have a gap in written material at this level -- the park newsletters don't have the right information, the park handbooks (when they exist) are too detailed, and the websites vary enormously in quantity and quality of information.

I'd love to see the NPS think in terms of an 8-page booklet for each site that provides the next level of depth for the visitor.

I am lucky if I even receive a detailed brochure when visiting an NPS unit anymore. The frequent response cited now is often that the budget has been cut back, and there are none available. Yet, one could also theorize that the NPS is taking steps to reduce waste and be "green" by not generating excess paper which people will just end up throwing away. Instead, the transition is being made to the web. It is truly serving as a replacement for the referenced printed material - this is also the same thing happening with every other form of media.

As such, the fact that they still are being handed out at JNEM is somewhat of a surprise, but not totally. The focus on the Gateway Arch itself is likely because that is the reason why the majority of the people are *initially* attracted to that particular site. True, there are some history buffs out there who go to the parks specifically for research and an understanding of our nation's past, but most sites are not sitting in the middle of a busy urban center, competing for attention from a range of other activities, nor have people stop in randomly while just passing by - all of which are the case at JNEM.

When planning trips to specific parks, I have definitely started to make an effort to read through the corresponding park's website before visiting. It provides a good overview and understanding for which I previously would have relied exclusively on the visitor center itself for. Not to mention that the online maps are also excellent preparation for not getting lost while navigating the park, either. ;)

I will admit that I do miss having the physical brochure to commemorate my visit, but the conversion to being web-based is quite valuable, too. If the park sites become more comprehensive, then individuals will have a wealth of information to explore anytime and anywhere. I feel that this is a very positive step.

I think it's the USA Today effect. More graphics/photos, less text. First USA today, then many daily newspapers, then ....

As a former Jeff employee, it is a shame that they changed the text, since most visitors to the site have no idea what it's about. However, since the park charges (25 cents) for the brochure, it may have been done to entice folks to buy it. Or, the older version may have been changed in the early 2000's to reflect the ramp-up of the bicentennial of the Corps of Discovery, which was in 2004. Just some thoughts!

The fact that most, if not all, of us on this website care more about parks and their natural and human histories makes us bad judges of proper content amounts on park handouts. I consider myself an "Informivore", any little crumb of information that the park will give me is read... and often reread. I know that I am in the minority and that most visitors want the map, not the information on the backside of the map. Perhaps having so much text just proves too daunting to most visitors and the thought is that minimizing the number of words will make the handout more readable to the general pubic.

However, it is a shame that visitors are directed to the web rather than interp staff for more answers.

What is obvious when you look at the new and old brochures side by side is that the text is bigger - this is a new standard across the park service for the brochures, which is slowly being rolled out park by park when they get revised. The reason is that it makes the brochure easier to read, especially for people with bad eyesight. Plus, when there's less text, people are more likely to read it. I know you guys loved it all, but a lot of people look at all those words and decide it's too much and don't read anything. Hopefully, this will fix that problem.

What gets cut in favor for what is up to the parks though, so it sounds like maybe better choices could have been made in this case, but I can tell you from experience it is hard to edit down something like this to be half the size. Hopefully next time they revise it (in about four years) they might add some things back in and edit out some of the rest, but it all comes down to what needs to be there, versus what would be nice to be there, and I guess they would probably know best ...

>>when there's less text, people are more likely to read it.<<

Ah, yes, the USA Today effect on America's attention span...sigh.

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