Keeping Up With… Digital Storytelling

KUW Digital Storytelling

This edition of Keeping Up With... was written by Sara S. Goek. Sara S. Goek is Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow and Program Manager at the Association of College & Research Libraries, email:

What is digital storytelling?

To begin, let us consider the two words separately. First, what do we mean by storytelling? To tell stories is fundamentally human. The word’s connotations suggest the classical or folk model of a speaker engaging an audience through narrative. As a more recent buzzword, storytelling emerged in popular consciousness around the turn of the 21st century. Its usage has become so common as to dilute its meaning. Second, what do we mean by digital? It is, perhaps, easier to say what it is not: it is not only text on a page.

Digital storytelling is the latest iteration of a narrative tradition. It involves creating and sharing stories using digital tools, incorporating multimedia elements such as image, sound, and words in a narrative that is then disseminated via a web platform. Bryan Alexander offers the most concise definition: “Simply put, it is telling stories with digital technologies. Digital stories are narratives built from the stuff of cyberculture.” [1]

Why engage in digital storytelling?

Digital storytelling – as the broad definition suggests – can have many uses. It can take the form of autobiographical reflections, curated interviews, documentaries, or any combination of those. For the purposes of this article I focus on three general categories of practice that I call pedagogy, engagement, and communication. They are not mutually exclusive.


As a pedagogical tool, digital storytelling can draw on and generate new forms of literacy – information, visual, digital, experiential – and expand our understanding of what literacy means in the 21st century. It can be adapted to students at any level from K-12, to college, professionals, and lifelong learners. In the classroom it can facilitate active learning as students learn to plan and craft stories – like a research essay or creative writing assignment for the digital age. Along the way they acquire content knowledge in a topic area, research skills (finding audio or images to incorporate), and the technical expertise needed to put it all together. It will not single-handedly transform learning, but it “can be a powerful element in the dynamic of transformation”. [2]


At its best, digital storytelling can serve as a powerful means of democratizing the record, engaging people and communities whose voices might otherwise remain unheard. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” [3] While publishing in the traditional sense has always required a certain degree of power and access, the digital medium can return at least some of that power to the people to whom the stories belong. It can be a “tool for community building and communication, both internally and externally." [4]


For institutions, storytelling has proven useful as a marketing tool. It offers a means of conveying a message. For this reason it has proven popular among public health groups, businesses, and also libraries. [5] ALA’s own Libraries Transform campaign could be interpreted as a use of digital storytelling. These types of storytelling campaigns are distinct from the form of engagement described above because they represent top-down rather than bottom-up initiative.


These examples draw on the elements described above and showcase the range of content that can fall under a broad definition of digital storytelling.

  • Pedagogy and history: Goin’ North: Stories from the First Great Migration to Philadelphia crosses boundaries between class assignment, digital humanities resource (with capacity for non-linear exploration), and digital storytelling practice. As part of courses at West Chester University, undergraduate and graduate students created a digital archive of oral histories, images, newspaper articles, and other primary sources. These became the foundation for in-depth stories focused on aspects of the collection.
  • Youth and community engagement: Faculty at the University of Colorado Denver partnered with community group Project VOYCE to facilitate youth engagement through digital storytelling. The high school students who participated created videos that reflect on their personal experience. In one example, “Wonderland,” a student shares her perspective on gentrification and community action.

  • Journalism and official storytelling: In March 2017 the city of Detroit hired Aaron K. Foley in the unique position of Chief Storyteller. He and his team have created Their goal seems to be broadening the stories of Detroit to highlight diversity within the city, create a stronger sense of community, and counter the more prevalent image of rust-belt blight. The social media accounts associated with the project share their own content, as well as information about job fairs, cultural events, notable citizens, and more.
  • Research and the library: In this video, Doug Boyd, Director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries, shares a story of research and discovery.  It combines narrated video, audio from a 1986 interview, contemporary and historical photographs, and archival video footage from World War II. The story of one researcher’s serendipitous discovery builds into a message about the role of the library.

Risks and rewards

Storytelling as a recent phenomenon is not without its critics. [6] Its focus on individuals – and particularly on short anecdotes with positive outcomes – often sidelines structural critiques and underlying problems. A story about how gentrification hurts communities may give a human voice to a larger issue and evoke sympathy in viewers, but does it prompt change? Does decontextualizing the process from its history and its ties to racial and social inequalities enable avoidance of those deeper issues? While the empowering and democratic intentions of storytelling’s proponents are no doubt genuine, they can eclipse critical perspectives. The stories created are not necessarily heard in a digital environment where influence can be purchased, and stories of survival can overshadow the stories of those who are left behind.

Current trends suggest the definition of digital storytelling has expanded over the course of the last twenty years as it shifts from referring primarily to video to encompassing a variety of mixed media formats. In addition, the ‘digital’ modifier is increasingly omitted as its ubiquity renders it unnecessary. While digital storytelling remains a useful tool, we should recognize its limitations. To reach its full potential, we should aim to create and share stories that ask difficult questions and demand true thought and empathy. Only then can we move beyond an emotional plea to the listener and into a springboard for action. In the words of Ursula Le Guin, the best storytellers “tell the same stories over and over (how many stories are there?), but when they tell them they are new, they are news, they renew us, they show us the world made new.” [7]


[1] Bryan Alexander, The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media, revised edition, Praeger (Santa Barbara, CA, 2017), p.3. StoryCenter, one of the oldest organizations devoted to digital storytelling, uses a more restrictive definition. They say a digital story is “a short, first person video-narrative created by combining recorded voice, still and moving images, and music or other sounds”[1] and that a digital storyteller is “anyone who has a desire to document life experience, ideas or feelings through the use of story and digital media. Usually someone with little to no prior experience in the realm of video production but time to spend a few days attending a workshop and developing a story with creative support and technical assistance from compassionate, highly experienced facilitators” (StoryCenter, “Introduction to Digital Storytelling,” webinar 12/4/2017).

[2] Linda Buturian, The Changing Story: Digital Stories that Participate in Transforming Teaching & Learning,, chap.1, e-book.

[3] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story” (TED Talk, 2009),

[4] Cheryl Diermyer, in Joe Lambert, Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community (London & New York: Routledge, 2013), 189.

[5] Erinn Aspinall & Rachel Hawkins, “Digital Storytelling: Expanding the Lifecycle of a Story” (Library Technology Conference, 2016), Examples from the business world include: Esther K. Choy, Let the Story Do the Work: The Art of Storytelling for Business Success (New York: Amacom, American Management Association, 2017); Nancy E. Furlow, “Storytelling through Integrated Marketing Communication,” in Charles Wankel & Larry E. Pate, Social Entrepreneurship as a Catalyst for Social Change (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2013), 207-222.

[6] Alexander Freund, “Under Storytelling’s Spell? Oral History in a Neoliberal Age,” Oral History Review 42, no.1 (March 2015): 96-132.

[7] Ursula Le Guin, “Telling Is Listening,” in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2004), 205.