Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives

Project Name: Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN)

Project URL:
Sample Narratives: video with transcript, text, audio

Project Author, Team, etc: Cynthia L. Selfe (Ohio State University), Ben McCorkle (Ohio State University), Michael Harker (Georgia State University), and the Ohio State University Libraries

Reviewed by: Susanna Coleman

Review Date: March 9, 2015

Tags or keywords: literacy narrative, literacy, archive, digital, literacy studies, composition, rhetoric, English

Genre: digital archive (data set)

Project Objectives: The DALN’s goals include maintaining a publicly accessible archive of personal literacy narratives, in which individuals explain in text, audio, and/or video how they learned to read and write, as well as narratives about “reading and composing all kinds of texts” (DALN Home). The DALN aims to create a historical record of literacy practices for people of all countries, demographics, and interests.


The Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN) archives personal literacy narratives from people of all demographics and makes this archive available online to the public at no cost. The DALN includes narratives in multimodal forms: text, video, and audio. Users can browse narratives by collection (from broad categories such as “Community Literacy” to specific categories such as “African-American Women University Professors”), date submitted, author, title, and subject; narratives are also searchable through a search engine incorporating Boolean operators. Besides hosting the narrative archive, the DALN also provides resources for teachers wishing to create assignments using the archive’s content, a selection of readings on literacy narratives, toolkits for creating literacy events or exhibits, and information and permissions forms needed for users to record and contribute additional literacy narratives. The DALN does not date its webpages, but dates of the narratives themselves confirm the content is current: of 5696 narratives archived at the time of review, the most recent six were only three days old.

The DALN approaches its collection and archiving of data from a literacy studies perspective, focused on qualitative, ethnographic research. The selection of readings includes texts from anthropologists and historians, and the studies of school literacy detailed in the readings include all levels of education. Although the DALN is a staple of composition and rhetoric teaching of literacy narratives, the archive itself takes a much broader perspective and is useful for other academic fields. Judging from the resources described above, the DALN’s authors intend it primarily for pedagogical use. Besides the teacher and student resources offered, the literacy narratives also lend themselves to the classroom. The sample narratives I browsed were all brief, with movies and audio files of around five minutes and text narratives of about three pages; thus, an instructor use just one narrative for a brief assignment or several for a longer study of literacy. The multimodal nature of the narratives also may engage students more than plain text and could appeal to students with various learning styles.

While the DALN is a joint project of faculty from both Ohio State University and Georgia State University, “contributing partners” of departments from other institutions also provide content. Otherwise, the DALN does not acknowledge collaboration with any other project and offers no proof of peer review, an advisory board, vetting, or received grants. This fact, along with the lack of competing projects and only one critical review (see below), casts a slight doubt on the critical value of the project. While the data is undeniably useful, the technological shortcomings of the DALN, described below, might be better addressed if the site underwent stronger critique.

As the DALN offers most of its narratives in the form of audio or video, such an archive could only exist in a digital format. The front end of DALN’s site is fairly easy to navigate, with clear descriptive text, a simple site map, and the ability to find narrative data through searching or browsing. The overall design of the site is effective as well, although its home page does contain large images at the bottom of page as backgrounds to the search, browse, and login functions.  These images felt unnecessary to me, and as the narratives are the primary content of the site, they should be accessible at the top of the page instead of the bottom. The site’s usability lessens with the search and browse functions, and its accessibility plummets with the narratives themselves.

DALN’s advanced search page allows users to search by types typically found in a research database: full text, abstract, series, authors, title, description, keyword, and language. However, the search also includes three more unusual type options: mime-type, sponsor, and identifier. I tested the full text search with the word “balloon,” which resulted in five hits including both text-based narratives and videos whose transcripts included “balloon.” Two of the hits were to the same narrative with the same author and submission date; however, one character was different in the title of the two, indicating the duplication may be due to a second upload by the submitter rather than the fault of the DALN. I also tried searching for “composition” as a keyword (having gotten no hits with “balloon”) and “Spanish” as language, with useful results for both searches.

My difficulties with the search engine came with the mime-type, sponsor, and identifier types. I remembered that MIME types had something to do with file types, so I hoped the mime-type search option would allow me to search for narratives by mode—text, audio, or video. Because the advanced search page offers no guidelines or help, I Googled “mime type” hoping to figure out what to put in the search box. Having confirmed that some of the narratives were in PDF format, I tried searching for “pdf” after reading that it was an application type, but the search resulted in no hits. I next tried “application/pdf” with no hits. After trying “audio,” “video,” “text,” and “MP3,” I gave up. I was also unsure of what term to search for under the “sponsor” and “identifier” options. In literacy studies, a literacy sponsor is the institution or person who enables an individual to become literate; for example, if a child learned to write in kindergarten, both her teacher and her school would be literacy sponsors. However, the search page did not indicate whether “sponsor” referred to a literacy sponsor or something else. Examining some narrative records did not help, as they did not list any searchable data except for title, author, and description.  All the search terms I tried for “sponsor” and “identifier” resulted in no hits.

Like the DALN’s search function, the browse function is useful only to an extent. As described above, the browse by collection option could help a user find a group of narratives dealing with a specific topic, but only a few collections are offered. The browse by date option is perhaps the most useful method of browsing; although the search engine cannot search by date, the browse function allowed me to jump to all narratives in the archive submitted during any particular month and year. Browsing by author and title may also provide helpful results, although some narratives are anonymous and not all titles are descriptive. Likewise, browsing by subject occasionally worked during my text, but often browsing what I thought would be a common subject, like “cancer,” only yielded one result, and many of the subjects were useless: “#1,” “367,” “y,” etc. Users enter their own subject when submitting a narrative, leading to some nonsense subjects, but the DALN complicates matters by not ignoring letter case in the subjects: “santa claus” is a different category from “Santa Claus.” Thus, although the DALN’s data is easily searchable for some uses, it is more difficult to search in other ways. Individual narrative records do include persistent links, so once found, a narrative can be bookmarked for future reference.

While the DALN does use audio and video media, I feel it does not make the use of the newest technology, a conclusion I reached due to my difficulties in using the search system as well as in accessing many of the narratives themselves. The narrative video, audio, and image files I viewed do preserve information in high quality, but the files tend to be large for their length/amount of content. For instance, the DALN’s video files generally use the QuickTime format rather than a streamable format with a smaller file size.  Also, many files are not in the most efficient or accessible format; one narrative I viewed presents images in PDFs instead of as image files.  Many text files—including some of the readings offered on the DALN’s resources page—are in Microsoft Word .DOC format rather than the standard web PDF format. While some video and audio files include text transcripts, others do not, making much of the site inaccessible to the deaf despite the DALN’s inclusion of a category for “Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Contributors.”

Overall, I do believe the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives is a valuable resource for pedagogy in the fields of literacy studies, history, anthropology, and composition/rhetoric. The DALN offers over 5000 multimodal literacy narratives from a diverse population, which could also contribute to a vast amount of qualitative and quantitative (if coded) research.  I have used the DALN myself to provide examples when I taught literacy narrative assignments in first year composition, and I most likely will teach with it again in the future.

However, I also believe the DALN could benefit from some back-end improvements on its search and browse functions, coupled with work on the files it preserves. My recommendations include the following:

  • Documentation/help for the advanced search function, particularly information on which search terms to use for each search type
  • Ability to search for format (text, audio, or video) or file type, provided this function is not already supported with the “mime-type” search type
  • Listing of subject and keywords on narrative record pages
  • Ignoring of letter case in subject entry and browsing
  • More limited selection of subjects or more detailed guidelines for entering subjects when submitting a narrative
  • Conversion of existing archived files to standard file formats (e.g. from Microsoft Word .DOC to PDF)
  • Automatic conversion of newly uploaded files and/or restrictions of allowed file types
  • Transcripts of existing audio and video files and encouragement for users to submit transcripts with their files

Finally, I would encourage more critical reviews and study of the DALN as a means of addressing its limitations and persuading its authors to improve the project.

Open Access: From what I could determine, the DALN does not share its technology; however, the authors encourage the use of its data, particularly for pedagogical purposes. The DALN’s resources page includes assignment ideas such as research papers, analyses, comparison essays, and coding exercises. The DALN also strongly encourages contributions of literacy narratives, both from students and from other individuals.

Similar Projects: I was unable to find any similar projects, only a few individual narratives posted on the narrators’ personal blogs/web pages.

Expertise Required: Generally, use of the DALN requires only basic knowledge of computers and the Internet. However, non-expert users might encounter problems in using the search function and in accessing some of the archived files. The DALN targets a variety of audiences: teachers, students, and researchers can make use of its data, while the general public can contribute to and access the archive. No expert academic knowledge is needed for either purpose, although again, contribution and access may require more than basic computer knowledge.

Other Reviews:

  • Bryson, Krista. “The Literacy Myth in the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives.” Computers and Composition3 (2012): 254-268. Print. – explores how the DALN and some of its narratives contribute to the “literacy myth” that attaining literacy always leads to a better life for the individual.
  • Comer, Kathryn B. and Michael Harker. “The Pedagogy of the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives: A Survey.” Computers and Composition 35 (2015): 65-85. Print. – examines ways educators are using the DALN to teach.
  • Ulman, H. Lewis. “A Brief Introduction to the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN).”  Stories that Speak to Us. Computers and Composition Digital Press. Web. 9 March 2015. – provides background information on the DALN.