THATCamp: Digital Storytelling, Local History, Social Media

What is an un-conference? It is a participant-driven gathering based on a particular theme or purpose. On the weekend of May 22nd I attended THATCamp, an un-conference at the Center for History and New Media in Fairfax, VA.

THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) is a gathering of individuals who work in the humanities to talk about the issues, concerns, challenges, and products in the realm of digital humanities.  While much of our conversations happened in person, they continued with the group writ large on Twitter all weekend long (#thatcamp). I thought I would take this opportunity to post about three of the sessions I attended.

Digital Storytelling

History is in essence a story. A narrative of the past compiled from documents, objects, and visualizations. It is text, it is verbal, and it is a very integral part of human identity whether it be your personal history or history on the multi-national level. During this session a group of us talked about the nature of digital storytelling and its role in education (though of course I was thinking about how it can be used in the public arena as well).

In a nutshell digital storytelling is the practice of telling a narrative using using technology and web tools. Sometimes this involves film (moving or, pictures put to sound), other times it is just a story told sans words with just digital photography. In our discussions we talked about how DS is narrative (that is a story told in a constructive format), non-narrative (something that is more formal), it can be linear or non-linear, interactive or a mash-up of many different mediums.

In the realm of education digital storytelling can be a means to teach the technology, but also a way to re-examine the past.  At the same time its a way to emphasize the value of textual, material, and visual sources in recognizing a complete picture of the past.

Some Digital Storytelling Links (Resources, Examples and Tools):

Local  History

The great thing about THATCamp was the opportunity to meet with preservationists/historians/humanities practitioners on the local level. At work, we (at the National Trust for Historic Preservation) are often looking at the big picture, and trying to provide resources to the local preservation organizations on the ground. So this session was about digital media on the local level–and what their needs were, and how to make the case to their boards and communities that digital technology and preservation are beneficial to where they live.

During this discussion we ended up talking broadly about the challenges and opportunities for local historical organizations, and aside from the ever present problem of funding we talked about the importance of collaboration and working with free, open-source products to branch out how we tell history on the ground level.  How can we, as digital historians, help our local historic societies reach a broader community not only through the framework of history that they tell, but also through the far reaching capabilities of the internet?

At the end of the session we talked about producing one of three “products” for use at the local level.

At the conclusion of the session we discussed a few possible next steps including,

  • A group blog written by local digital historians in the Mid-Atlantic region
  • A collection of how-to guides for implementing digital projects
  • White-papers or reports with detailed case studies on existing projects, e.g.

Social  Media and the History Non-Profit

This was the session I proposed, which was to get an idea of what was going on at other organizations regarding the use of various social media tools. We started out by looking at some of the ways the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been using social media in its advocacy:

  • The 2009 National Preservation Conference, “Virtual Attendee” page. Using live chat (Cover it Live), Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and Twitter to get information about the conference out to the preservation community.  In particular the web team looked at ways in which Twitter could be used by multiple people to tell the multiple stories from the conference–and as a result a team was deployed that consisted of each individual Twitter account having its own “beat”. For example, my handle @pc_presnation was tasked with giving a general history point of view for the conference, and I ended up actually tweeting the National Preservation Award ceremony as if it were the Oscars. To prep our members we released this video.
  • The Save America’s Treasures campaign. In brief, in the 2011 budget the monies for the Save America’s Treasures, Preserve America and Heritage Area’s programs were either completely zeroed out or drastically reduced.  In order to mobilize our members and remind Congress of the importance of preservation  it was decided that social media would a) put materials out there that people could use, and b)serve as direct marketing for the cause.  The text messages, the Facebook status messages, and the materials posted on YouTube and Flickr were divided between the emotional and the factual. For examples check out our   Tweet for  Our Treasures page.

The conversation ended up with a discussion about how to integrate social media into existing workloads–and we came up with the following strategy list:

  • Adding Social Media to your work plans
  • Creating a policy to deal with criticisms
  • Developing metrics for assessing how our social media projects are reaching potential audiences
  • In order to get the word out it is useful to have canned messaging for your members to use to get the word out themselves

All that being said, we were left with a few questions. How do you reach people digitally outside of Facebook, Twitter etc., and how do you deal with the issues that come from non-profits that work on an international level? Also–aside from another portal to distribute information from Twitter and Facebook how are non-profits taking advantage of the tools on LinkedIn?


The nice thing about The Humanities and Technology Camp is that it appeals to individuals of all levels of tech ability–and unlike most conferences the discussions are informal, and collaborative, ensuring a continuation of the discussion beyond the four walls of the actual lecture room.  With each of these sessions we developed actual goals and ideas that could be implemented in our day-to-day work days.

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