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Creating Great Digital Humanities Projects When They’re More Important Than Ever

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This is a guest post by Michael Steffen, an incoming graduate student at the University of Illinois, as well as a 2020 Junior Fellow at the Kluge Center.

This summer, I had the opportunity to work as a Junior Fellow for the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. As someone who is interested in information sciences and the humanities, I was drawn to the Junior Fellows program. It gave me the opportunity to combine my interest in American history with my passion for collection management.

The primary project I contributed to was in the digital humanities, titled Connecting Thought and Action. Using ArcGIS Story Maps, it commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Kluge Center.

The map highlights scholars who have been in residence at the Kluge Center as well as Kluge Prize winners. It features an interactive map depicting the academic biographies of over 50 scholars from around the world and the research projects that they worked on while in residence. Additionally, I created a video highlighting the interactive capabilities of the story maps platform and an infographic that summarizes the key points of the project.



Credit: Michael Steffen.

Look through the Junior Fellows Projects here

While working on these projects was both professionally and personally fulfilling, it required a lot of trial and error. I had to be flexible and adaptive in figuring out how to conduct research, collect visual materials, and connect those items to create one cohesive narrative. These tasks were all complicated by the fact that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was unable to complete any of them in person at the Library of Congress. I did everything remotely from my home in the Midwest.

Credit: Michael Steffen. This webpage is a successful component of the Story Map because it contains minimal text, is centered around the video, and it is clear that users are supposed to interact with the video by clicking on it.

With the increased use of video conferences, remote work, and virtual tools, the importance of digital experiences will likely endure after COVID-19. I believe that making collections more accessible to the general public will require public servants to develop new virtual and interactive ways to display that information. Because of this trend, I thought I would share some tips to future interns, whether virtual or otherwise, about what I have learned so far in creating digital content:


1. Plan Ahead: Digital projects allow for limited space for content. There are only so many words, images, and videos that can neatly fit onto a webpage. As such, the purpose of your digital project should be focused. Drafting, outlining, and storyboarding your ideas ahead of time will help you create a layout that will both reflect the theme of your information and enhance your communication of it.

2. Build Your Story Around the Visuals: The best part of any digital project are the visual aids and interactive tools that are put on display. If used correctly, they tell the story much more clearly and concisely than paragraphs of words can. However, when visual aids are used too sparingly or as an afterthought, they make the project feel cumbersome and confusing. Start your project by identifying what images and interactive tools you want your audience to engage with and build out from there.


3. Create a Narrative: When creating a project centered around visual media, it can be tempting to include a smattering of everything. However, the greatest strength of digital projects is their flow. They have the ability to take you from one idea to another, sequentially and seamlessly. When too much information is haphazardly thrown at the user, it is confusing and counterproductive. Creating a structured, edited narrative within your digital project will keep the user’s attention, make the interactive tools feel more intuitive, and help the user better navigate whichever online platform you are using.


Credit: Michael Steffen. This interactive map communicates the global influence of Kluge Center scholars without words. It creates its own complete narrative within the Story Map.

4. Be Consistent: If your digital project contains multiple components, make sure that they are all consistent in tone and design. In my case, I had to make three deliverables (a story map, video, and infographic) that all displayed similar information. To make these projects as effective as possible, I made them different enough in content so that they all could be viewed independently, yet similar enough in style and design that they complement each other when viewed as a whole. Following this type of approach will help you create final products that will uphold your institution’s message across multiple platforms.

Ultimately, completing this project taught me the value of virtual storytelling and reinforced the importance of collaboration and accessibility. For future Kluge Center interns and Junior Fellows, know that the digital humanities are alive and well. Hopefully, by keeping these tips in mind, you will spare yourself a lot of wasted time and effort in developing your own projects.


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