Gather ‘Round and Download the Tale: A Primer for Digital Storytelling in Archives

Storytelling, the analogue / shiny-shirt-wearing version
From the Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music

The storytelling urge is an ingrained part of human behavior spanning back to our earliest conversant days, when “This plant bad, that plant good” wasn’t just helpful advice for staying alive, it could also pass for a rollicking tale around a campfire.

Among the myriad ways we’ve progressed here in the 21st century is in our ability to tell stories in new ways using archival subject material. Digitized copies of 19th century letters, transcriptions of 17th century diaries, cassette tapes from the 1970s migrated to MP3: these are the tools a digital storyteller can utilize to bring the stories of the past to a new generation of listeners.

But at the heart of that process still lie some basic steps that a curator, scholar or blogger can use to bring the materials to their greatest impact.

  • Evaluate the materials: It may seem simplistic, but taking a good look at the source materials is often the most important part of any storytelling arc. Where possible, sort materials into an order that makes sense for the narrative; chronological is the most likely candidate, but you could also sort by thematic elements or format types as well.

 

  • Look for unifying themes: If your project encompasses something larger than a single life (where you’re telling the story of one principle character, for example), it can be helpful to look for unifying themes in your materials. Good starting points include a place (geographic), an idea, a repeating theme (freedom from oppression, interpretation of race in popular culture) and the like.

 

  • Gather your contextual materials: Often, we are unable to tell a full story by pulling only from the archival materials at our disposal. So it is important to gather contextual materials – secondary sources, other collections’ contents, new scholarship, etc. – to help augment the records on hand. Researchers also love seeing lists of these reference materials at the end of a blog post or contextual resource page, so include them as a guide for further investigation.

 

  • Compile the text: Now that you’ve gathered your materials, it’s time to sit down and actually write your narrative. My best advice for this part of the process? Nulla dies sine linea, or “No day without a line,” attributed to Pliny. That means not getting sidelined by writer’s block; just sit down, start typing, and see what flows. You’ll surprise yourself almost every time.

 

  • Evaluate: Don’t be afraid to take a good look at what you’ve written, and don’t forget to look back at resources you created in the past to see where they can be updated and revised for the better.

 

Toeing the Line

One challenge to overcome when writing the story to be told from archival collections is how to present enough information without editorializing or leading your readers/researchers/scholars to conclusions. As a collections professional, it is your job to present as much relevant information as possible without editorializing. Wherever possible, try to present facts in a neutral voice and present facts as plainly as you are able. Avoid the temptation to infer, guess, speculate or otherwise draw conclusions from the evidence; leave that kind of thing for your researchers and subject scholars.

That’s not to say you can’t have your own opinion, of course. Blogs are a great way to expound upon your own opinions about the collection without injecting it into the contextual research presented as part of your digital archive. So fire up a WordPress or Blogger account and flex your extemporizing muscles. After all, you’re likely the one person in the world who’s spent the most time with this particular collection of materials, shouldn’t you have a chance to give your two cents?

Where Does It End?

Just as our friend David Licata and the crew working on the upcoming documentary A Life’s Work know all too well, there are some stories that are difficult to tell simply because they have no definite end. How do we tell the story of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project with any sense of finality? When do we stop recounting the information touched on in our Baylor University Libraries Athletics Archive? These are just two of the collections that could conceivably branch into innumerable storylines with no distinct ends, a potential problem of great concern to researchers and casual users who need the structure provided by a definitive beginning, middle and end to a story.

This is where the epilogue or “to be continued” approach can be very handy. If you’re wrangling with a subject that has no definite endpoint, include a note at the end of your contextual statement that indicates the collection in question is an ongoing project and updates will be added as they are needed. In other cases, it may be helpful to set an arbitrary cut-off date for your contextual research and simply note that, while more information is available for this collection, it is far from settled or even to a point that it can be presented in its proper context, and that an update will take place when the time is right.

A Worthwhile Yarn

The wonderful thing about digital storytelling is that it gives archival collections professionals a chance to open their resources up to a worldwide audience, something that was impossible only a few short decades ago. For truly unique or rare items, this could mean exposing someone a continent away to the treasure stored safely in your neatly ordered stacks, all without the need to undertake expensive travel. As stewards of these materials held in the public trust, it is our duty and our privilege to acquire, preserve, present and promote the materials in our care for use by researchers and interested parties the world over. Anything less would be a disservice to our stated mission of connecting people with ideas.

As you’re sitting down to tell the stories hidden in your archives, take a moment to appreciate the opportunity you have to do something truly impactful and unique in this world. While it certainly takes a great deal of work to get it done, there’s no substitute for the satisfaction of knowing you’ve used your talents to keep a story alive for a new generation of listeners.

And if all else fails, remember this: we can tell all these stories without getting campfire smoke on our materials. Now that’s a story worth telling.

If You Scan Something, Set It Free: The Surprising Places We Find Our Digital Objects Online

An image from the Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music makes an appearance on “Gregg’s Blogg” at http://www.harpguitars.net.

For the parents among our readership, you well know that stepping back and letting your child experience life on their own – from their first unaided steps to the day they walk the stage at graduation – is one of the toughest things you have to master. And even though you know it’s part of their healthy development, you can’t help but feel a mix of bittersweet emotions when you see them take that next step on their own.

We experience something akin to this when we take a look around the Web to see where our digital collections objects are showing up online. The usual suspects turn up pretty frequently – Flickr, Pinterest and the like – but every now and then we see references to our materials in some pretty interesting places. So we thought we’d present a few examples to you here, in no particular order, of places you can see the results of our hard work presented by people all across the Internet’s spectrum of sites.

War of the Rebellion Atlas plate on a French language site registered in Djibouti

War of the Rebellion Atlas plate on a curated set of American Civil War images amalgamated by Photoree

Article on the Browning Letters Project from PublicLibraries.com

Wikipedia entry for Pat Neff featuring image from 1933 “Roundup”

An image from the Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music on a blog dedicated to “the harp guitar”

And these examples are just a smattering. Many of the images and references back to our collections stem from the major publicity we received from two viral stories related to our work that came out last year. One was the major media coverage related to the Valentine’s Day unveiling of the Browning Letters Project, and the other was our blog post from August, “So We Can Throw These Out Now, Right?” What We Learned from Microfilming Newspapers and How It Shapes Our Digitization Strategy.

One issue with the widespread proliferation of our materials does arise, however. Many of the references to our Digital Collections homepage link back to an old URL. We used contentdm.baylor.edu prior to an update to our content management system, CONTENTdm, which we implemented a couple of years ago. That means anything that was blogged about, posted to Flickr or referenced in some other way using a link from the old contentdm.baylor.edu address won’t work correctly today. Instead, it will redirect users to our homepage, where they’ll have to carry out their search again. We’ve added information about this issue to our Digital Collections homepage, and so far we’ve not received any negative feedback regarding these now-unavailable links.

So if you’re out scouring the fringes of the Internet one day and happen to come across a reference to our digital collections in a fun or unexpected place, drop us an email and tell us about it. Because if there’s one thing parents everywhere enjoy without question, it’s seeing their babies making a difference in the world.

Imitating Janus: A Look Back, A Look Ahead for the DPG

A Sign of Things Bygone, To Come

Janus, of course, was the Roman god of beginnings and endings, usually represented as having two faces – one looking forward, the other back. His was the realm of doorways, transitions, gates and time itself. We derived the name of the present month from his name, so every time you curse your luck for living somewhere that January is one of the grayest, coldest, slushiest months of the year, you can grumble a little oath for him, too.

But January brings its share of pleasures, and one of them has become the idea of looking back at the year just past as we set goals for the year to come. It’s a month when, like December, people start posting random lists of Top Thing of 2012 and Top Thing To Expect In 2013. And so, in keeping with established tradition in the world of blogging, we’d like to take a moment to look back at The Year That Was by providing you a run-down of our most popular blog posts of 2012. It’s a handy way to catch up on posts you may have missed, relive your favorite DPG moments or just kill a few minutes on a cold, slow early January day at the office. We won’t judge your motivations – but we’ll gratefully accept your pageviews!

January’s top post:
War of the Rebellion Atlas Puts DPG on the Map in Tennessee

February’s top post:
“How do I love thee?” Let Us Digitize the Ways!

March’s top post:
A New Dimension for Our Collections: Introducing the Digital Collections Podcast

April’s top post:
Scott Joplin’s “Great Crush Collision” and the Memorialization of a Marketing Spectacle

May’s top post:
Everyone’s a Curator!

June’s top post:
Getting to Know the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project (BGMRP)

July’s  top post:
“A Long Time Minister of the Gospel and a Great Leader in Our Southern Baptist Convention” – The Selsus E. Tull Collection

August’s top post (and 2012’s most popular post):
“So We Can Throw These Out Now, Right?” What We Learned from Microfilming Newspapers and How It Shapes Our Digitization Strategy

September’s top post:
Join the Crowd(sourcing): Turning to Our Readers for Metadata Help

October’s top post:
Bringing Cartography, Digitization and Texana Together for a Limited Time Via Our Digital Collections

November’s top post:
“The Path of Good Intentions is a Steep Learning Curve”  – An Update from Zada Law

December’s top post:
Bonnie and Clyde (and Pat) and the Texas Collection Artifact That Ties Them Together

A Look Back

All in all, it was a banner year for our blog. We went viral in August, featured our first guest columnist and exposed our readers to hidden gems and one-of-a-kind resources available only from the Baylor University libraries. We received a total of  9,791 visits through December 2012, with the majority (4,568) from Texas. The blog was accessed by users in every state in the U.S. as well as by readers in the U.K., Canada, Australia, India and Germany.

When we started this blog a little over a year ago, we had no idea what to expect in terms of impact, site visits, topics or anything else, for that matter. Now we can point back to a very successful year and use it as a benchmark for further growth and utilization of this versatile outreach tool. It has proven to be a remarkable way to engage our users, and we look forward to seeing its usefulness expand in the coming months.

A Look Ahead

We have two pieces of information to pass along to you in this inaugural 2013 post, both of which are exciting and being revealed here for the first time. One is the change of our group’s name from the Digitization Projects Group to the more-appropriate Digital Projects Group. Not only does this shave off two superfluous and tongue-tripping syllables from “Digitization,” it also more accurately encompasses the scope of the work we do.

Yes, the digitization of archival materials will still be a huge part of what we do, but the creation of digital versions of audio-visual materials isn’t precisely digitization – it’s more technically migration. And what about the creation and management of born-digital files, things that were never printed on paper in the first place? They were never digitized, but we are responsible for their preservation and propagation nonetheless. So, “Digital Projects Group” seems to fit the bill a little better than our previous moniker, and in the final analysis, it will at least be easier to say.

Along with the group name change, our esteemed colleague Darryl Stuhr has garnered a well-earned nomenclature upgrade as well. He is now the Assistant Director for the Digital Projects Group, a change from his previous title as Manager of Digitization Projects. I’m sure you’ll all join us in congratulating him on this change and wish him well in the coming months as we figure out all the ways we’ll be doing more with our new name and our expanding role in the Baylor libraries structure.

In closing, we want to thank you for your support over the past year. Writing this blog has been one of the highlights of my career this far, and, on a personal note, I’m looking forward to bringing you even more high-quality content each and every week of 2013 – barring a couple weeks off here and there for things like Spring Break and the occasional week when we’re all so deep into a project the thought of blogging falls after priorities like eating and occasionally seeing our loved ones.

Here’s to an exciting 2013, everyone!