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.

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