Northern Appalachian History Digital Storytelling Archives

By Christina Fisanick, California University of Pennsylvania and Robert Stakeley, Senator John Heinz History Center

This article appeared in the Volume 1, Issue 3 Winter 2020 issue of the Appalachian CuratorClick here to view a PDF of the full issue.

Christina Fisanick, an associate professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania, began seeking an opportunity to integrate digital storytelling in her honors writing classes since she completed her Certificate in Digital Storytelling from the University of Colorado at Denver in 2010. Robert Stakeley, the Education Outreach Coordinator at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had been searching for additional ways to showcase the collections from the Heinz History Center Affiliates Program (HCAP), which are small historical societies and organizations throughout parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. Being aware of both of their needs, in April 2013 Gary DeLorenzo, a professor of mathematics and computer science at California University of Pennsylvania, brought them together to talk about a potential partnership. That conversation sparked a collaboration that has produced more than 300 digital stories that tell the history of northern Appalachia.

Digital stories are short (two to four minutes) videos that combine a voiceover, moving and still images, and a soundtrack to tell a story. People all over the world use digital storytelling as a tool to share their thoughts and experiences with issues ranging from refugee rights to coping with cancer to identity politics. Fisanick and Stakeley teach honors students at California University of Pennsylvania how to create digital stories that explore the history of communities throughout southwestern Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, and eastern Ohio with the intention of not only preserving the history of the region, but to encourage people to appreciate their own histories by visiting local historical societies and organizations.

From this collaboration, more than 600 students have worked with more than 70 HCAP sites over the past seven years. Originally, these digital stories have been stored on YouTube as a short-term solution. In 2019, however, the Manderino Library at California University of Pennsylvania established a digital archive to permanently house and provide access to these stories. Although the archive is in its early stages of development, the public can watch 18 of the most recently created digital stories, which primarily focus on southwestern Pennsylvania history.

In creating these digital stories, students have used a wide range of historical artifacts from historical societies and organizations, such as California Area Historical Society, Brownsville Area Revitalization Area, the Connellsville Area Historical Society, and the McKeesport Heritage Center. Topics for just a few of the digital stories have included the 1948 killer industrial smog in Donora, Pennsylvania, the Benwood, West Virginia coal mine disaster of 1924, the Whiskey Rebellion in Washington County, Pennsylvania, and the Free Labor Store in Mt. Pleasant, Ohio. The Digital Storytelling Project archive will continue to add digital stories from past and future semesters with the understanding that if we do not tell our own stories, others will tell them for us.

The Northern Appalachian History Digital Storytelling Archives can be found at

Christina Fisanick is an Associate Professor at California University of Pennsylvania, an advisory board member for the Northern Appalachian Network, and a founding member of the planning committee for the Writers Conference of Northern Appalachia.

Robert Stakeley is the Education Outreach Coordinator and Heinz History Center Affiliates Program Manager at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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