Julia Maserjian

By Hayes Smith
February 2012

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Archival Materials into Documentary Film

Librarian Commentary by Julia Maserjian

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 I’d like to tell you a story, one about a series of experiences that changed the way I work with students and faculty at Lehigh. In fact, the story is about stories—digital storytelling, to be exact. Digital storytelling uses computer-based still and moving images, text, audio, and music to document experiences, ideas, and research.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In the fall of 2005 I had the pleasure of working with English professor Ed Gallagher in an experimental, first-year writing course, “Digital Songs, Stories, and Histories,” that offered students new ways to communicate through a variety of multi-media assignments. For one assignment the students were asked to create a video based on a research question they developed from materials they found in Lehigh’s Digital Library project, I Remain: A Digital Archive of Letters, Manuscripts, and Ephemera. The site contains hundreds of items from the university’s Special Collections and Archives that represent five centuries of writers, explorers, scientists, philosophers, and politicians.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The students were asked to select a document from the site that piqued their curiosity, transcribe that document, formulate a historical question, develop a thesis, select materials that would support that thesis, and produce a video based on those efforts. The vast majority of the students embraced the archival and technological challenge. The results appear on the I Remain site.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In order to understand the content development and technological challenges our students faced, I delved into my family archives and produced a short personal video story about my father. I was amazed at the ability of this process to challenge and change my perspective on the past. Cathartic is the only way I can describe my experience. Clearly smitten with this medium, the following year I taught a course for the History Department, Digital History and Video. This class had a mix of undergraduate and graduate students who were also asked to explore the archival materials on the I Remain site. They had to perform many of the same assignments as the previous class did, but, as the course level dictated, they had to be even more rigorous in their research. The students wrote a footnoted essay about their document(s), and then converted their research essay into a script to include narration and accompanying visuals.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 One of the Digital History students, a senior with a double major in history and education, discovered a treasure trove of primary sources when she came upon a scrapbook of memorabilia related to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The scrapbook was compiled by American boundary commissioner, Rhode Island Secretary of State, historian, and author John R. Bartlett. Using many of the images in the scrapbook, she constructed a seven-minute video about the assassination of President Lincoln and the effect his death had on the country. Rather than address a scholarly audience in her production, she chose to produce a documentary with a general audience in mind. The storytelling choices she made in her narration and accompanying voice-over collaborations with faculty and fellow classmates are clearly directed toward that general audience. Though initially intimidated by the use of new technology, this student was pleased that she was able to face the challenge and learn a new skill that would help her in her career in elementary education.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Since these initial forays into student-produced documentary, I am pleased to say that this form of communication is alive and well at Lehigh University. As the number of requests for video projects grew, Library and Technology Services formed the Documentary Resource Team. The Team is comprised of librarians, instructional technologists, and media specialists who help faculty and students navigate the opportunities and challenges of video production. In many of these classes, students use physical and virtual archives extensively in their research and image selection. With the opportunities of archival discovery also come the challenges of representing findings.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The materials we uncover in archives and the way we choose to use them has provoked an ongoing series of questions about copyright, research methodology, and documentary ethics. Regardless of the event (long ago or yesterday) or the individual (living or dead), the lessons our students learn about their obligations in representing the lives of others are important ones. What is at stake when, as digital storytellers, we document the experience of others? What happens when those experiences move beyond the confines of the classroom and become part of a larger audience at public screenings or on the web? The questions of authority, privacy, responsibility, and moral obligations are good ones with no easy answers. Luckily, as educators, we are not in the business of easy answers.

Julia Maserjian
Librarian Commentary

Julia Maserjian

Digital Library Specialist, Library and Technology Services – Lehigh University

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