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Meet the Method: StoryMap

Photo of the StoryMap jazz trail.
Photo of the StoryMap jazz trail.

This NULab blog series serves to showcase some of the DITI’s publicly available learning resources. This installment focuses on StoryMap.

By Claire Lavarreda

It is winter in Boston, and the warmth of a cafe envelops me as I write. Hot coffee, sticky pastries, and the unmistakable scent of steamed milk waft over the bustle of a busy crowd. Over the speakers, soft jazz plays — gentle piano trickling into my ears. Whenever I hear jazz, I am transported back in time, to the Spring semester of 2023, in which I took a class titled “Documenting Fieldwork Narratives.” Focused on oral history and community-engaged service learning, the course was taught by Professors Angel Nieves and Doreen Lee, with students producing two final projects: (1). Interviews with elders of the Black jazz community in Boston, and (2). Research on long-gone jazz clubs throughout the city and the creation of a jazz trail. Every time I hear jazz, I think about that class — the people I spoke to, the rich and vibrant world outside of Northeastern’s walls, the anecdotes and history I knew nothing about. Perhaps it is this experience that led me to ask: How can digital tools uplift a community’s memories? In that same vein, how can both academic and non-academic projects harness the digital humanities to serve their communities?

To answer these questions, I turned towards a digital and spatial storytelling approach, using KnightLab: StoryMap as my platform. In essence, StoryMap allows a user to place points on a map and create accompanying descriptive slides. Many examples can be found on the DITI’s website here — most recent is Clara de Carreras Murat’s project, “Portuguese Explorer Vasco de Gama’s First Voyage to India,” which traces Vasco de Gama’s journey around Africa to India. As I explored the wealth of resources available, I realized that I could merge my ethnography and oral history experiences from INSH 5602 with my current responsibilities with the DITI. Thus, I embarked on a journey to create a StoryMap based on the student research conducted in Spring. The research conducted by my fellow students was inherently spatial, as we had already dug through the archives to explore where jazz clubs of the past were hidden in Boston. 

I began my work by refreshing myself with the DITI’s module on “Storytelling with Mapping,” as well as the supplemental handout with guiding questions and points. As I read through each question, I realized that creating a StoryMap was far more than just plotting points on a screen: it was a way to reclaim history and highlight hidden voices. Sure, I could create a point titled “The Pioneer Club,” and leave it at that — but what about the rich history behind the place? The impact it had on the Black community? The legacy of the brothers who owned it? No – what I needed to do was create a StoryMap that not only honored the work done by students in the class, but the community that the history belonged to. With this framing, I imagined a map that not only plotted the locations of the former jazz clubs, but included the rich historical analyses written by the students who researched them. This way, I could ensure that the map was more than a bunch of locations – instead, it would be connected to the Black jazz scene of the twentieth century.

At first, I hastily created a StoryMap by simply inserting student write-ups into the map, accompanied by a historical image of the building and the student’s name. Yet helpful feedback made me realize I had missed an essential step— getting permission! While I had credited each student, I never directly asked the students to use their work so it was back to the drawing board. This, of course, was an important reminder for me. To do community-engaged work is to honor and respect the privacy and protocols of every individual — and we must be flexible and willing to change our projects to respect this. I then reached out to the students in the class, and received permission from four students. With this experience in mind, I created an improved StoryMap: one that had fully credited + captioned images, custom icons in the shape of a saxophone player, a YouTube video, and guiding points about the importance of community-engaged mapping for diverse communities. You can check out this map here.

As the late Dr. Nieves wrote, “Our responsibility as practitioners and activists is clear — we should ensure that cultural groups articulate what resources are important to them, how resources should be protected, and who should be empowered with the management of those resources.” As we create StoryMaps, we should consider how our community-centered projects are defining, uplifting, and preserving cultural resources to the benefit of the community. These resources don’t need to be tangible artifacts — perhaps they are stories, oral histories, music clips, and long-gone places. What would you preserve?

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