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Digital Historical Narratives
By Meghan Mcglinn, UNC School of Education

"Digital historical narrative refers to a digital story that describes or interprets historical events" (Bull, 2005). Digital historical narratives are an adaptation of Digital Storytelling created by Joe Lambert. Lambert is co-director of the Center for Digital Storytelling in the San Francisco Bay area. Originally interested in providing a forum for solo theatrical work, he now encourages the integration of multimedia digital stories into school curriculum. Whereas digital stories tell personal anecdotes, digital historical narratives capture some event from the past and bring it to life. By using electronic primary sources a 2-3 minute "movie" is created that includes a variety of media—audio, video, photographs, and text. According to Bull (2005) digital historical videos are made of the following components:

  1. Dramatic question: The dramatic question allows for an exploration of a topic of interest related to the historical past. Through inquiry, a digital historical narrative gets its focus and goal. By creating a sense of anticipation and wonder the creator grips the audience.

  2. Point of view: Digital historical narratives are very different from traditional, generic and "objective" interpretations of the past. Here the creator chooses a point of view from which to tell the story; sometimes multiple views are incorporated. For instance, a major event such as the sinking of the Titanic could be depicted by a survivor, a wealthy passenger or a poor passenger, or from a scientist studying the technical aspects of the ship sinking. The point of view determines the level of emotional content that will be present in the narrative.

  3. Emotional content: Just like the dramatic question is designed to grab the audience's attention, so too emotional content is what draws interest in the narrative. The past was not a dull, boring thing [although some history textbooks may depict it as such]. Rather it was vibrant, human, and multifaceted. Digital historical narratives bring this notion to life. By adding music, voice, and images from the past they engage the audience in the human experience.

  4. Economy and pacing: Key to digital historical narratives is the pacing. These are not intended to be long documentaries. Rather the narratives are focused around a single dramatic question which is answered by the end. Attention to economy and pacing forces the creator to concisely and vividly recount a historical concept.

  5. Voice and soundtrack: Finally, no digital historical narrative would be complete without voice and soundtrack. Sometimes referred to as the "Ken Burn's effect," these narratives dramatize the past. Again, in order to grab the audiences' attention and add emotion to the interpretation, a variety of audio tracks are incorporated into the final product.

We suggest teachers use this outline of the five components as a guide to help students better understand the parameters of creating a digital narrative. At the same time it is perfectly acceptable for narratives to focus on only one of these components or some combination of two or more. For instance, we feel that the inquiry is an important part of historical learning and therefore focus on the "dramatic question." By beginning here, generally, the other components fall into place; we don't get overly worried about forcing them as long as a central, "burning" question guides the narrative.