Digital witnesses

WYSO Archives Digital Humanities Symposium updates storytelling

By Karen Ander Francis

Photo: WYSO Archives Fellow and Digital Humanities Symposium organizer Jocelyn Robinson finds wisdom in past voices; photo: Andy Snow

Storytelling is in our bones. Before we humans first picked up a chunk of charcoal and began to draw on cave walls, we told stories around a fire. Millennia later, itinerant bards wandered village to village carrying tales of other places and people. Today, storytelling has become a digital conceit for many—tweeting, Instagramming, Facebooking, blogging—we post the minutiae of our lives for all the world to see. It’s storytelling in the 21st century.

Recording first-person narratives as oral history is a time-honored way of preserving the past for the future. We cannot understand how we got here, or where we are headed, without a sense of the collective past.

October is American Archives Month, calling attention to a national effort, spearheaded by the Library of Congress to preserve at-risk materials, especially early radio broadcasts. Although the word “archives” may evoke images of stacks of dusty tomes with yellowing pages and fraying edges, contemporary preservation techniques transform that notion from dusty to digital.

To highlight these efforts and explore the role of digitalization the teaching of humanities, local public radio station WYSO will co-host a conference called, The Past Made Present: The 2016 WYSO Archives Digital Humanities Symposium Oct. 20–22. The event is a collaboration of several area colleges and universities.

Allen Gevinson, Library of Congress project director for the American Archive of Public Broadcasting and special assistant to the chief of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center at the Library of Congress, will join a host of presenters from institutions across the country in a wide range of workshops during the three-day event.

“We are approaching the 50th anniversaries for many significant events of the period, and practice of digital humanities allows us to reflect upon this controversial past and to contextualize our equally challenging present,” says Jocelyn Robinson, WYSO archivist fellow and organizer of the event. She was referring to a period from about 1965 to ’75 that witnessed great cultural shifts, some quite violent then and painful to remember now. In addition to the Vietnam War, there were the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements in which people voiced their loud opposition and discontent in the street.

Keynote speakers Willa Seidenberg and William Short, Antioch alumni who are husband and wife, will open the conference on Thursday evening. They co-created the oral history/photo project, A Matter of Conscience: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War. Seidenberg is a journalism professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at University of Southern California and still works in radiocasting. Short fought in Vietnam—and was court-martialed and jailed in Vietnam twice for his resistance to the war. Examples from this project will be the subject of a gallery talk at the opening reception on Thursday evening.

Much of Short’s post-war work, in addition to Matter of Conscience, entailed six return trips to visit Vietnam. Seindenberg accompanied him on three to interview citizens and soldiers about their experiences in the war with the Americans. “They’re stories that people weren’t aware of at the time, and I thought it was important that Americans understand the other side a little better,” Short says.

Now a Los Angeles-based artist, educator, and freelance photographer, Short, who teaches at Moorpark and Santa Monica colleges in California, says, “Digital technology through websites and PowerPoint reaches a much greater audience than I could have before,” adding that it’s a great tool to use for the preservation of visual artifacts.

A presentation in the symposium called “The Aftermath of the Kent State Shootings at Bowling Green University” chronicles one campus’s response to the Ohio National Guard slaying of Kent State University students in 1970. Collected from residence advisors who were in the dorms and describe the atmosphere on campus and students’ responses to the shootings, the interviews personify the immediacy of the impact on student peers on a nearby campus through first-person narratives.

Another workshop, “‘We’ve Got Go!’ Conflicting Narratives of North Texas in the 1960s,” shows how University of North Texas librarians created the documentary “Bonnie and Clyde, They Ain’t” using what they considered at the time to be underutilized archival materials.

This unique look at political turmoil in the U.S. drew on primary sources from the UNT archives, including sound and motion images, to contrast amateur and professional visual narratives juxtaposing the anti-establishment Hollywood film, Bonnie and Clyde with a locally produced, optimistic TV news series.

Also on the slate of about 16 workshops are “Digitally Documenting Dayton’s Graffiti” and “Documenting Dayton’s Funk Music History.”

A second, and no less important, focus is the use of digital media in humanities classes, from sociology to journalism to history. “One Interview, Five Tools” introduces oral historians, journalists, ethnographers, and students to digital tools opening new horizons for navigating, visualizing, organizing, and publishing narrative stories.

Narrative stories, once recorded on wax cylinders and magnetic tapes, are now at risk of deteriorating beyond use and being lost. Radio preservation, such as WYSO’s Rediscovered Radio, now being undertaken by 24 U.S. stations with the Library of Congress, will also be explored.

“Having access to voices of the past is so crucial to bringing stories alive for current-day listeners, and then being able to give current-day perspective on the historical event,” says Seidenberg, whose relationship with WYSO goes back to her student days at Antioch.

Creating current programming with an ear to its future historical impact is another facet of WYSO’s blend of community and public radio station models that will be the subject of a workshop. Community Voices and Youth Radio, both locally grown and going strong, train community volunteers and students to interview for immediate broadcast and historical record. Seidenberg, whose students create radiocasts in South L.A., observes that such efforts “create much richer stories in the present and their preservation yields first-person immediacy to future oral historians.”

We may have come a long way from charcoal drawings on a cave wall, and 21st century storytellers may have an astonishing array of digital tools to choose from and use, but it’s still about the story.

The Past Made Present: The 2016 WYSO Archives Digital Humanities Symposium takes place Friday through Sunday, Oct. 20–22 in the Arts and Sciences Building on the Antioch College campus, 1 Morgan Pl. in Yellow Springs. Keynote address and gallery exhibit are on Thursday, Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. and are free and open to the public. Registration is required for Friday and Saturday events, and fees vary. To register or for more information, please visit and check ‘Events.’

Reach DCP freelance writer Karen Ander Francis at

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