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July 20, 2016

Getting Started in the Digital Humanities with Digital Storytelling and the Immigrant Stories Project

Elizabeth Venditto

So you’re interested in the digital humanities. You’re considering a new skill or tool, maybe through a lesson here at the Programming Historian. But your research involves working with individuals and the stories they tell, rather than abstract data. Is there a place for you in the digital humanities? 

Yes! Digital storytelling would be a natural fit. The Immigrant Stories project provides a model for digital storytelling as a research tool. In 2013, the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) began Immigrant Stories to collect contemporary migration stories through digital storytelling and preserve them in the IHRC Archives. Our growing collection of digital stories is available to researchers. Our training materials allow a novice to teach others to make digital stories, and to make digital stories themselves.

Digital storytelling is a way of sharing personal narratives through brief digital videos. The process is simple. You begin by writing a 300-500 word story about a personal experience. Next, you produce a voiceover by making an audio recording of yourself reading your story. Then you finish your video by adding images to your narration in a video editing program. A digital story can be quite sophisticated and include video clips, background music, and special effects. But there’s no need for camera crews or retraining as a film editor. A powerful digital story comes from a compelling story and images. Saengmany Ratsabout’s Immigrant Story about his family’s experience as refugees is a great example.

Immigrant Stories teaches participants to make a digital story about a personal or family migration experience. Digital storytelling allows the participant to choose their story’s form and content rather than respond to a researcher’s questions. Our digital stories include first-person accounts of migration, reflections on ethnic and racial identity, and descriptions of transnational families and labor. Participants come from more than 45 ethnic groups and include diverse types of migrants, such as refugees, international students, and transnational adoptees. These digital stories also raise interesting questions about how people craft personal narratives and how we document and share history in a digital age.

The entire Immigrant Stories collection is publicly available to researchers worldwide. When a participant chooses to share their story with us, we post their digital story, transcript, and metadata online through the Minnesota Digital Library and the Digital Public Library of America. To date, the Immigrant Stories collection contains more than 200 digital stories. 

Hosting our collection online presents possibilities for utilizing the collection in combination with other digital humanities tools. We share all Immigrant Stories under a Creative Commons license so they may be included in digital exhibits created with Omeka. We’ve already created such an exhibit, Immigrant Stories: 40 Years Of Southeast Asian Stories. You could add some of our digital stories to an exhibit highlighting your own research. Immigrant Stories transcripts can be utilized for data mining–which you can learn about in lessons right here at the Programming Historian.

You can train others to create digital stories with our simple digital storytelling training and participate in the project, even if you’ve never made a video yourself. Download one of the  Immigrant Stories toolkits, our comprehensive guides to teaching digital storytelling in a class or a two-day workshop. Each toolkit provides step-by-step instructions for writing a migration-related script, selecting images, recording a voiceover, and editing a video. We include just enough technical instructions to complete each step without overwhelming detail. Anyone who makes a video is welcome to contribute their digital story to the Immigrant Stories collection. We’ve included instructions and donation forms in the toolkits.  

Finally, in August 2016 we will launch a new tool to make digital storytelling simpler than ever. The Immigrant Stories web application will be a one-stop shop to make and share a digital story. The application will incorporate our existing digital storytelling training and a video editing program, eliminating the need for outside software. Using this free tool will only require a computer or mobile device connected to the Internet. The application’s code will be available on GitHub, where we encourage others to reuse it.

For more information about Immigrant Stories, project updates, and to view our digital stories, visit us at

About the author

Elizabeth Venditto is Project Manager for "Immigrant Stories," a digital storytelling initiative based at the University of Minnesota's Immigration History Research Center.