Digital Storytelling: Presenting History in New Ways

By Special Contributor posted 11-01-2017 16:14


By Sara Collini and Andrew Salamone

How do digital tools change the research, construction, and presentation of historical narratives? Two Ph.D. students in history at George Mason University share their experiences with presenting arguments about the past by creating 10-minute digital stories.

Sara Collini’s Project

My digital storytelling project began much like a traditional history paper. While interning at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, I came across a letter George Washington had written to his farm manager in 1794 that mentioned Kate, one of the women enslaved there. She had petitioned Washington to become the plantation midwife for Mount Vernon and to be compensated for that labor. This bold and unusual request raised many questions about slavery in the 18th century, health and medicine, and plantation management. Because my assignment was to create a 10-minute digital story, I started with a single question: Did Kate actually earn compensation for her skills?


Kate lived on Muddy Hole Farm at Mount Vernon. | Credit: Library of Congress Geography and Map Division

Starting with that letter, I began the research process. I queried the Mount Vernon Slavery Database, examined Washington’s diary, farm reports, censuses, and plantation ledgers. I also read secondary sources about slavery in the Chesapeake, midwifery and childbirth, and 18th-century Virginia. I soon learned that Kate had left behind no sources in her own voice. Every fragment of information in the archives was mediated through Washington, his farm managers, and the confines of the slave system. How do you tell the story of someone who left behind no primary sources?

Digital tools enabled me to weave together a historical argument and articulate the significance of Kate’s actions. After meeting with my professor, I decided to split my digital storytelling project into two narratives. One explored Kate’s role as a midwife at Mount Vernon. The other explored the actual process of “doing history”: starting with a question, finding a variety of source materials, analyzing them, and putting together a meaningful argument. At this point in the project, I learned to let the digital tools drive the story forward. By using image- and video-editing software, I was able to visually and academically layer those two narratives to highlight the fragmented primary sources. I connected every mention in a census or a plantation ledger and wove those sources into to the broader context of slavery in the 18th century.


Page 2 of George Washington’s letter to his farm manager, William Pearce. In the second paragraph Washington discussed Kate’s petition to become the plantation midwife. | Credit: Library of Congress Manuscript Division

The process of creating this digital story was collaborative and iterative and resulted in a shareable piece of scholarly work. My professor and classmates provided instrumental advice, peer review, and constructive feedback on writing the script and presenting the narrative, learning to use different digital tools, and considering the message and historical significance of the story and its intended audience. I initially took a public history perspective, envisioning museum visitors at Mount Vernon as the audience. After the class ended, however, the project proved useful in undergraduate history classrooms where students were learning about the historical research process. I was able not only to research Kate, an enslaved woman who boldly requested compensation for her work more than 200 years ago, but also to create a digital scholarly project to share beyond the classroom.

Andrew Salamone’s Project

As a blind Ph.D. student, my experience with using digital tools has been a little different than that of my classmates—different in that I did not use them to convey my message visually. I get the impression that historians often view digital history as synonymous with visualization, and while many of the digital tools available make it easier to arrange data and images visually, this is only a small slice of what they can offer.

I was tasked with producing a 10-minute movie based on primary source research. The assignment raised more than a few questions and concerns for me. How, for example, would I go about filming something I couldn’t see? How could I take advantage of camera angles, lighting, and scenery to convey my message? After talking with the professor, we settled on an alternative assignment. I would use audio-editing software to put together a podcast examining the content and tenor of Independence Day celebrations in the antebellum South.

I began by pulling together a series of Independence Day speeches and editorials printed in newspapers between 1826 and 1860. I then recruited some of my colleagues to record themselves reading the material and found music written during that time period to serve as background. Then came the task of assembling a podcast that would both entertain and inform—which I found more challenging than crafting arguments and building historical narratives using the written word. For example, I had to consider how background music could set the mood for each segment and determine which of my readers sounded most appropriate for each speech or editorial. I considered introducing a speech excerpt and framing the written word to engage listeners with unfamiliar vocabulary and cadence. All of this required me to carefully balance providing enough narration to help listeners pick up on nuances and key points with leaving room for the audience to hear the voices and words, absorb the music of the era, and draw their own conclusions.

My experience in this class illustrates the flexibility that digital tools bring to academia. By working with my professor to modify the format of the deliverable while still achieving the learning objectives, I was able to independently use digital tools to make a scholarly argument and interpret a historical event. For decades now, digital tools have been instrumental in the “democratization of history,” though this has been largely skewed toward the consumption of historical information. My experience clearly shows that, with a little imagination and flexibility, digital tools can open new opportunities for those with print disabilities to participate in the digital interpretation of history and contribute to important historical debates.

Sara Collini is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history whose research interests include slavery and health in early America and digital history. Andrew Salamone is a doctoral student focusing on 19th-century U.S. history whose interests include the construction of nationalism, memory, and military history.

Want to learn more about this topic? If you are attending PastForward 2017, make sure to check out Transmedia Storytelling at 9 a.m. on Thursday, November 16.