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Telling Tales: Joe Lambert from the Center for Digital Storytelling

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The following is a guest post by Jane Mandelbaum, IT Project Manager at the Library of Congress’s Office of Strategic Initiatives.

The Insights Interview series is an occasional feature sharing interviews and conversations between National Digital Stewardship Alliance Innovation Working Group members and individuals involved in projects related to preservation, access, and stewardship of digital information. In this post, I am excited to have the chance to talk with Joe Lambert, Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Digital Storytelling.

Joe Lambert by user cogdogblog on Flickr
Joe Lambert by user cogdogblog on Flickr

Q1. Could you give us a quick overview of your organization?

The Center for Digital Storytelling was founded in the early 1990s as a community-based training center in digital media.  From the beginning we were known for encouraging a style of short (2-3 min), personal films.  The method and applications of a workshop model became our focus as we moved to UC Berkeley in 1998.  Since then we have expanded as an international organization with approximately 90 separate projects per year, helping organizations engage populations in producing and distributing stories in numerous contexts.

Q2: What do you think makes digital storytelling different than other storytelling?

Our original interest was the simple idea of affordability and distribution of video editing as a form of expression, summed up in the idea that what typing did to 20th century literacy, video editing will do to 21st Century literacy.  But implicit in this understanding is that when you compose in film, or words spoken, sound and image, you are engaged in multi-modal communication – that had exponentially more complex impact on you as an editor/creator, as well as your audience. What we share with the storytelling traditions is a strong sense of formal issues on the creation of meaningful and powerful stories, we teach the elements of story as a core part of our trainings.

Q3: How did the center get started and what do you think has contributed to its growth?

The Center grew out of my theater and community arts organization, Life on the Water, in San Francisco, and a specific collaboration between myself and the late Dana Atchley, a professional video producer, designer and performing artist, called Next Exit.   We grew through several stages, and to some extent markets, starting as an arts-based organization working locally but also engaged in the media technology industries of the early and mid-nineties.  In moving to Berkeley, our emphasis became more explicitly educational and tied to discussions of digital media literacy and instructional technology. In this, our third phase, beginning in 2005 our focus became more and more human services and work with NGO and agencies dealing with post-trauma or difficult life issues and the use of storytelling as a healing modality.

Q4: What kinds of people or examples have inspired your work?

I am inspired by numerous sources; certainly the work of Studs Terkel in popularizing stories of ordinary people and oral history.  I am deeply inspired by the general trends of community-based arts where artists engage people in the issues of their lives.  More recently, I take inspiration from Storycorps and organizations like the Museum of the Person in Brazil, that have managed to make reflections on lives a valued and more central part of the dominant cultures in their countries.

Q5: Can you describe the different ways in which people interact with stories?

At the general level, it is of course fundamental human activity.  Answering what happened, listening as witness to other’s experience and to your own, makes us human, and shapes us in countless ways.  In the specific sense of our work, the stories start as deeply personal artifacts, often to be shown to a limited audience, family members, friend and community, and on the other end of the spectrum become broadcast stories consumed by a general public.  We delineate for our partners and clients how the stories serve these different purposes, personal expression and the preservation of memory, tools for learning and the sharing of information, tools for organizing and mobilization, tools for advocacy and social change, and tools for evaluation and reflection.  In each way, the same story can said to have a different role, simply by the way it is contextualized.

Q6: I can see that the work includes the recording of stories, and also outreach and education efforts. How do you evaluate the success of what you do? How do you describe your outcomes?

One fortunate part of being a process organization that makes a product is that the products themselves are tangible outcomes.  When we work with a community to discuss issues and address problems, the community ends up with a compendium of stories they can use in all the above ways.  We also develop project plans with specific additional deliverables including curricula, study guides, subtitling, web design, presentation services, etc, that are evaluated for their impact and usefulness.  When possible we like to have thorough evaluation of the movement of the storytellers from beginning to end of the process, what changed within them in the process, and how the story is continued to be used.  Many colleagues in the academic world have taken a much deeper look at the long term impact of a digital storytelling process within educational and community environments.

Q7: You offer web media design and production services.  How does that work fit in?

It is a small portion of what we do, but inevitably organizations with which we are collaborating are also in the process of more developed media strategy, including re-design of websites, or the making of documentaries about their organization, or a project, and because we have those capacities as well, we will take on the project to assist.

Digital Storytelling Viewing Station by user MACSD on Flickr
Digital Storytelling Viewing Station by user MACSD on Flickr

Q8: What methods have you found useful in encouraging large-scale projects?  What do you think are keys to scalability?

Besides obviously some resource for the technology (although that is endlessly cheaper), the real issue is systems of training facilitators.  Like many honed methods, the quality of experience as well as the effectiveness of the stories, comes with the ability to adapt to a given set of individuals and the context of the environment (both in terms of how storytellers are engaged and purposing the work, as well as the issues with the technological infrastructure provided).  We take several years of collaboration with a partner to fully qualify facilitators, but once they are present, programs tend to grow, because these “lead” facilitators can then pass those skills on and create sustainable capacities for the organization/community.  The other issue is vision of the ways the stories become part of a community, in ongoing rituals of presentation events, or senses that this particular process serves as a rallying process for certain kinds of campaigns.  In University settings we have seen the projects scale because they have a clear niche in the way people make community. People have learned to gather around each other’s digital stories, as ways to recognize each other, and support each other’s interests and unique contributions.

Q9: How do you think about or encourage preservation of stories into the future?  How do you address that in your partnerships and workshops? What can be learned from how people have preserved stories in the past? What kinds of technology issues have you dealt with, and how have you dealt with them?

Our standing agreement is that all projects, the output film files, and the project resources (were the film need to be re-edited from scratch), are maintained by CDS.  So 900-1200 stories a year are archived by our organization through this process.  The archive has taken every media form, from videotape, to CD-Rom, to DVD, every kind of storage media, but mainly external hard drives.  Our centralized archive is on a DROBO 16 TB server, holding approximately 4000 stories. The main lesson is tertiary levels of back up, with no two levels being stored at the same location.  We have used some cloud based storage, but the data flow is a bit too much for us to do at the informal level.  At six different times we have attempted putting in place a searchable system for the archive, but we still are mainly using a date process, as the files are not maintained with inherent metadata; the metadata format exists, as do the databases, but as a small independent arts organization we have not been able to afford and maintain staff focused on our archive.  As a result, when we are asked, as happens once a month, do you have a copy of my movie from 2001, we have a way of finding the film, but it is by no means at a moment’s notice, and is not available to researchers and others as a rich research source, which would be our preference.

Q10: Do you work or interact with organizations such as libraries and archives that collect digital content?

Shortly after the agreement with StoryCorp to bring their material to the LOC, we approached the Folklife folks about the same idea with our archive, but we had no simple way of providing ongoing maintenance, so we gave up on that solution.  We should find an institutional partner to assist us, as it really is an amazing archive at this point.

DS106 Set Title Image by user life-long-learners on Flickr
DS106 Set Title Image by user life-long-learners on Flickr

Q11:  What do you think are currently the most pressing problems that need to be addressed for those working with digital content? To what extent do you think we are addressing these problems?

I really cannot speak for the field.  Data management has not vastly improved in terms of standardization, but the cloud-based solutions suggest we are not far from trusting the great brother in the sky to maintain everything for us.  In which case, how you move terabytes of data from a small organization up into the cloud is the problem.

Surprisingly, for our group,  the issues that concern us start with digital creation.  We have no simple way to collect metadata information on the films as they are created, so we create a backlog of mind-numbing data entry work to make the documents valuable.  It seems that we need a way, even as people are titling their pieces, and/or filling out their evaluations, that they fill out the story metadata information, choosing appropriate tags, and content information so we would not have return to the work, years later, and make sense of what these stories can tell us, or how we can use them as examples.

Q12: What do you think are the kinds of problems that your organization will be facing in the near future? In the longer future?

We would love help, is what it comes down to.

Q13. What do you find encouraging in our current world, in terms of your work?  What do you find discouraging?

The pendulum from a data-centric, logico-centric domination of what we consider knowledge and wisdom, to the intuitive/creative/story based wisdom, is swinging our way. We need a more balanced understanding of knowing what it means to be human, and ways for listening processes to be seen as at least as valuable as arguing processes. What is discouraging is how little listening happens, lots of noise, lots of things to listen to, but little real listening.  We are drowning in information immediacy, and we need the lifeboat of reflection.  I keep putting patches in canvas to keep it floating, but the tide keeps rising as far as I can see.

Q14. How do you think storytelling and listening affect other aspects of people’s lives?

I obviously think story is the whole enchilada of our lives.  We carry a script of ourselves, we generally do not alter the script, we are trapped inside so many levels of self-identification and self-rationalization that we can not see how it molds all our choices, our behaviors.  If you go tell and re-tell the seven essential stories of your life, family self/becoming, community self/connecting, essential self/being, loving self/partnering, creative self/serving, thinking self/knowing, and dying self/transcending, you become a more complete person.  It is a challenge, and many more people are taking that challenge, and are made richer for it.

Q15: What have you learned from other fields or professions?

I read across history, society, cognitive science, technology, health and wellness, mindfulness and spirituality, and stories, many stories.  I take parts of each to consider different parts of the way stories work upon us.  I am currently engulfed in ethics, particularly professional ethics in the human contact professions.  Lots of words to actualize the golden rule.

Q16: We’re always trying to tell compelling stories that illustrate the importance of digital preservation.  Do you have advice for us?

Funny thing happened on the way to the hardrive is not a joke I have heard lately, in part because a hard drive is precisely an inconsequential thing.  Pulling a hand written letter from a file cabinet that was written by your great uncle about his feelings on Woodrow Wilson’s role at Versailles is one thing, whipping it out of the National Archive database is another.  The visceral still has great hold on us.  Most of the stories we have about the encyclopedia internetica are about the delightful accidental discoveries, you thought you were looking for X and you found Y, and Y it turns out is exactly what you needed.  I think those kinds of stories rationalize the great apparatus of memory, that we can make a link that was not expected, and that turns out to be a decisive moment in understanding.  Do you have any of those?


  1. Hi,
    My name is Lucia, I would like to contact Mr Lambert.
    Who I knew in Italy, in Polverigi for the Inteatro Festival.

    Was a very great experience to know the world and innovation of Story telling.

    I gave him and his family italian lessors. I need his email address. Thank you

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