For Museums and Libraries

Digital Stories

Oral history is without a doubt an essential part of the collection of history. It sometimes gets a bad rap being done poorly, although I know that the Oral Historians Association works hard to encourage professionalism. It is a primary source and as an Historian I know how important they are. However, we can’t escape from the fact that an oral history, no matter how professionally done, is controlled by the oral historian – they are leading the discussion and asking questions, often they necessarily have an agenda. We also can’t deny that the final product – an audio file, perhaps a tape and a transcript – are not in themselves an engaging product. So, in order to make these very important stories and words engaging, we take snippets and quotes, use a photo or object to illustrate it (or perhaps the other way around) and create a much more accessible experience. Something like this:

“Dad built a little stall beside the road where we were able to sell all things that he grew. I remember on the first day I made 17 shillings and sixpence ($1.75 in today’s money). That was a good day’s work. I still have a photo of me [in] front of stall.” Antonio Punturiero from Belongings Online Exhibition (NSW)

The other way of using oral histories in a more engaging way is to video the history being taken. In this case, the subject is still being interviewed, but we get to listen to their story rather than read it. This is certainly more interesting but can be long and meandering.

This particular video goes for more than 9 mins – it is a lot to ask of someone when there are umpteen other videos to watch in an exhibition, not to mention if they are watching it on line. I think this woman’s story is fascinating but I can see that she hesitates to tell it authentically – she tells the story, probably one she’s told many times before, but we miss out on so much of what she really thought and felt because the medium doesn’t allow that to come through – she is telling an interviewer, a camera is pointed at her – in these circumstances we all want to do a good job.

I’m not at all suggesting that digital stories could take the place of oral history but they are another way, a more engaging way of presenting an individual’s story.

First I’ll tell you why they are more engaging and then I’ll tell you about how they are even more powerful than that.

It is the multimodal medium of digital stories, which just means that they use a variety of modes within one medium, that means that a story comes alive and we are taken on an emotional journey with the subject using spoken words, images and sometimes film, music and film techniques, such as fading, interposing and movement – these are the multimodes that make up a digital story. Each mode carries the viewer along, giving clues using techniques and conventions we all intrinsically understand that all together tell a rich, surprisingly detailed and emotive story. What is so special about digital stories is that they are in the control of the subject – they are not only told from their point of view but they are actually created by them. This means the subject decides what to talk about, what story is really important to them. The story is more authentic, more real and all the more engaging because of it.

And this means great content – every time.

Because digital stories are created in a workshop environment – not by individuals on their own – they are collaborative. The most important part of the workshop is the story circle which asks participants to tell their story or present a rough draft of a script. Everyone then contributes to the story – explaining what grabbed them, what they liked, what was really authentic, what the *real* story is, giving suggestions for visually representing the story, throwing ideas around to solve the problems about how to tell the story. This process necessarily takes a long time, but without a strong story, a well-worked script and a lot of thinking about how to produce it, a digital story won’t work.

This process also means that anyone can make a digital story.

Yes, anyone. Because participants get support to develop their story and support to use the technology to make it, there are very few barriers to being successful.  Plus, participants can be guided with workshops run with themes which encourages participants to tell stories about a particular event or time or belief.

Media from the people

History from the subject

Content from the community

If you’d like to know more or you’d like to chat about how digital storytelling could be used at your site, museum or library (or other group) please email me at jen r griffiths (at) gmail dot com (obviously without all those spaces!).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: