digital story design for special collections

Last fall, I provided technical assistance with the pilot of a digital storytelling in special collections course. The concept is a fantastic one, and a lot of lessons were learned from this process.   It’s something that I felt so strongly about that I’m now collaborating with the curator of specific collection to offer a subject-specific version of the course.

Staying true to the CDS (Center for Digital Storytelling) model for digital stories can be difficult. The “7 elements” approach is more of a journey than a step-by-step assembly of digital assets. What makes a digital story successful is the emergence of some personal insight expressed in a cohesive, first-person narrative.

And adding in special collections essentially throws in a wild card. How do we properly integrate the personal with the academic? Well, this is something I’ve been pondering and research for several months now, and I’d like to share some of my progress thus far.

With any good design problem, I’ll begin with our overarching course goals. These are based on the assumption that our audience is comprised of a mix of undergraduates with little experience researching in the libraries.

  • Students will learn to do exploratory research by contextualizing primary sources from a combination of personal & academic lenses (not solely diary nor documentary)
  • Students will become more visually literate by learning to represent information through use of both literal & metaphorical images (in an ethical manner)
  • Students will learn to work in a community of practice by constructively supporting each other in all parts of the digital storytelling process (technical & conceptual)

And then within these goals contain or could potentially contain a wide range objectives in regards to information literacy, higher education in general, and subject-specific topics.

I know I’ve probably mentioned it before, but I love digital storytelling as a vehicle for doing these things because I believe it’s empowering, inspiring, authentic, and compelling for students. It allows students to be creative in ways that they don’t normally associate with academic research. I could see it as a new, alternative paradigm in instructional approach.

But while there’s a lot of opportunity to unpack and foster what we call information literacy, poor execution in implementation–even if students do produce something at the end–can result in mixed or even negative outcomes. If done well though, it can be a transformative experience.

That being said, I wanted to list at least a few components shouldn’t be compromised when putting together a digital storytelling course:

1.  Create a safe space for participants. This is perhaps the most difficult to do. Digital storytelling is not about the instructor. Like any traditional writing or research course, it’s about helping students find their voice and developing an interest. Because personal experiences are desired and made explicit, students need to feel like they can openly share their feelings and thoughts on topics as well as speak to issues that others have. Sometimes these issues, even as they related to primary sources, are very personal and even sensitive. Students & instructors alike should expect and help foster a positive, confidential & judgement free-zone through a set of ground rules that are followed consistently. While these aren’t therapy sessions, trust is important.

2. Developing clear assessment for activities. It can be hard to criticize very personal stories. However, since there are technical and scholarly elements to these stories, there should be some expectation of knowledge and quality. Students should be able to say something substantial about the primary source that doesn’t solely originate from what they read on Wikipedia (not that there’s anything wrong with using it as a starting place).

On this same note, images and other sources should still be used ethically and cited properly, which means this should also be part of the instruction and grade. Think about these things as you develop ways of assessing milestones throughout the course as well as their final story.

3. Iterative feedback loop between all participants. In digital storytelling workshops, one of the primary activities is the “Story Circle” in which each person shares their story or an outline of the story they intend to do. It not only helps build community, but it helps students share resources, develop analytical skills, and learn to articulate their thoughts. While participants tend to be hesitant to criticize personal stories, this is an important part of the process that should be mandatory for every individual. Again, the fact that there is an significant academic & technical elements to this course should make it easier for students to participate, especially if the instructor models or provides rubrics for these processes.

I’m not sure how many people out there are thinking about how to design a library-situated digital storytelling course, but I’d like to think some of these ideas are potentially applicable beyond my particular course. Likewise, I realize I haven’t actually talked much about special collections. However, I believe these are still key things to remember when trying to add additional curators or subject matter experts to such a course.

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