On Digital Storytelling

It’s hard to write a blog post on digital storytelling without paying respect to Lisa Nelson-Haynes, my supervisor at my “day job” with the Painted Bride Art Center.  Lisa does work for the Center for Digital Storytelling and hosts workshops with intentionally-injured youth who create digital stories about their traumas to help heal their spiritual wounds.  Haynes also is part of the All Together Now project, which collects inter-generational stories of civic activism.  She calls this portion of her professional life her heartwork, and when reviewing a larger view of digital storytelling work, this term– heartwork– makes sense.  Projects involving audio/visual work to share individual tales or to clump these individual tales together often stem from intense happenings or events– the 911 Digital Archive is a good example of this intensity.

I’ve spent some time exploring digital storytelling work in the place where I am focused currently– Kensington, Philadelphia.  One project I discovered was Kensington Blues, a blog of audio and photos completely focused on sex workers and drug users along Kensington Ave.  It’s an interesting consideration for me, this blog, because it humanizes many people who are often very stigmatized, but at the same time, it sheds a certain voyeuristic light on the challenges that these subjects face on a daily basis.  This project, more than any other I have found, challenges me to think critically about what we share in public or not.

I have not come to a conclusion about what is best to do with sensitive digital storytelling, but I think a lot of what makes for best practice in terms of what is shared depends on what the subjects deem permissible.  In other words, if a person understands that the content is public, and if this person has signed a waiver, and if the site has a disclaimer somewhere that warns or requires a certain age for experience, nothing is really off limits. (However, editing seems sensible in terms of online repositories if sensitive material is not relevant to the project topic.)

When it comes to first person narratives with media, perhaps it is best to make all content public and consumable. While some of the content may be sensitive or explicit, the subject is an agent of itself, speaking for his or herself, and constructing a story for online archiving that cannot be overwritten by another voice.  Is this not the point of what we are doing with digital storytelling, letting go of our authority as historians so that others can place themselves in their own context?

As for History Truck, at this point, my intention is to share stories as mostly audio clips from longer interviews.  My reasoning is twofold– it makes for an easier online audience experience in that the sound clips are short enough to consume in entirety (an example of project that offers shortened online versions of full stories is StoryCorps, which has its challenges with overpopulation and organization) and it makes sensitive material something to be saved for the archives where researchers who need to explore more… can.  The other plus to shortened edited stories which respect private details has to do with digital storytelling and oral history work itself– it deals with memory based from a person living now.  Releasing  complete oral history done today could be detrimental to someone’s life, relationships and work.



History Truck: Home Drive


History Truck: Home Drive will be an online repository of thirty second to two-minute oral history clips from the Philadelphia Public History Truck.  This archive will be organized by neighborhood, beginning with East Kensington in April-May 2014.  The clips will be tagged by topics and Philadelphia places and events to help people orient or search for listening.  Ideally, participants would be able to search by these tags from a search engine.

Aesthetically, Home Drive could be a digital storytelling tool in which the audio connects with visuals including photography, archival reproductions, and video.  For now, Home Drive will focus on making important and diverse oral history audio from Philadelphians available to the larger online public at no cost.

Home Drive will be an online-accessible “home” version of the truck for researchers and listening audiences.  The full recordings of the oral history work are being deposited into the Special Collections Research Center of Temple University Libraries.  Oral histories are being edited currently with Audacity and will be stored on soundcloud or Amazon S3 depending on cost and capability (further research needs to be done on this issue).

As far as design, in an ideal world, the schematic would be playful and interactive complete with small, moving cartoonized versions of the history truck’s current logo.  This plan is currently beyond my capability, but I am keeping larger ideas in mind when building this repository in case funding for website development and construction become available.


As a sub-proposal, I would like to acknowledge my continued interest with translating the truck’s physical spatial history component into an online project.  More details regarding this idea will become available closer to the exhibition’s opening.

Defining Digital History

Firstly, hi.  It’s another exciting semester of (directed and well-considered) meanderings on public history.  This Spring, my entries will focus on Digital History.

But what is Digital History?  Let’s try and set some concrete ideas on that now.

It’s easy to intertwine the process for defining public history and digital history because both are ways in which historians work.  What I mean by that is that public historians are historians who work with people, one foot in the academy, one foot on the street.  Digital historians are historians who work one foot in the academy, one foot on the web.  However, public history is also defined as any history which occurs outside of the academy at places such as museums or historical societies.  Considering this definition of public history, it makes sense to also consider either digital history as a form of public history or to define it as any history which occurs with technology.

What seems to be the most useful in terms of this class and as a public historian is to think of digital history as public history which occurs with technology, whether that be an app, a website, or an exhibit installation.

Historically (according to last week’s class with Deborah Boyer), digital history falls under the “big tent” of digital humanities with literature, linguistics and art.  As Lisa Spiro wrote in This is Why We Fight: Debates in the Digital Humanities, it also holds an affinity with the civic role of librarians with values of inquiry, respect, debate, and integrity.  Spiro also shared the AHA’s standards of conduct to “trust and respect both of one’s peers and of the public at large.”  All of these considerations remind me of public history’s charge to utilize scholarship as a public service addressing immediate concerns of a community of memory.  For this reason, I will define digital history in this way, as a technological arm of public history with a slightly more flexible intention in that it might not be exactly a public service addressing an immediate concern.  Maybe it is most safely defined as an historical method used to connect scholarship with a community of memory.

So what is a best case example here?

What I would like to share is a digital history project featuring a map of oral histories.  I think Historymakers is cool because it is quite an organized digital archive of oral histories featuring African Americans.  What I would love to see is an organization of that archive which is somehow cartography… like the Oakland Chinatown Oral History Project’s Memory Map.  It would be exciting to see a memory map with audio recordings available.  Hopefully I can make something of that nature for History Truck with both a web and mobile app version.  We’ll see!

I’m also quite taken with using maps as counternarratives.  I am creating one such map in a stationary version for the Truck’s first exhibit cycle in East Kensington, and it would be very interesting to visualize this map digitally.  Visualizing Emancipation is one such wonderful map-based digital history project.  (I know this example was shared in class, but well, when an example is good, it’s just good.)  It stands as an inspiration and example of what can be done with data using a map.

More to come!  Thanks for reading!