Case Study: StoryMapper– A Case Study in Map-based Oral History

by Paul McCoy

HumanitiesTennessee, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has long worked with volunteer-run historical organizations to provide interpretive history programming for the general public. In 2006, Humanities Tennessee partnered with the all volunteer-run ElktonHistoricalSociety (EHS) to conduct a pilot program entitled Stories of Land and Place, a Web-based oral history project documenting and interpreting daily life in mid-twentieth century Elkton and the surrounding communities of southern Giles County. Humanities Tennessee provided the EHS with training in interviewing techniques, digital audio recording, and digital photography. Then, working from the premise that the personality of communities may be uncovered by exploring the places through shared stories, the EHS volunteers collected hours of oral histories and dozens of historic photographs about their local communities, neighborhoods, businesses, churches, farms, and schools. Using StoryMapper, a Drupal-based content management system developed by Humanities Tennessee and Music City Networks, these stories were then organized into what is, essentially, a virtual interpretive tour of the area and its people. In the following case study, I will discuss the project from training to implementation, the benefits of map-based oral history, and the potential for future applications.

For the oral history collection itself, we adopted a form of the community scholar model which has worked so well for oral history and folklife projects in Kentucky and Alabama, among other states. This model provides community volunteers with professional training in the collection and interpretation of local history. We provided funding for such training opportunities to the volunteers of the EHS over the course of a year. The training began when EHS volunteers participated in special lecture/discussion sessions– led by authors and scholars– dedicated to community issues and the idea of sense of place at the Southern Festival of Books in 2007. These sessions framed the content and subject matter central to the project. A few weeks later, we sponsored a day-long oral history training workshop led by Dr. Douglas Boyd. Along which trained volunteers in digital recording and editing. Dr. Boyd worked with them on basic interviewing and transcription techniques. Humanities Tennessee staff also provided additional training sessions in digital photography and digital photo editing.

Aside from the training sessions, Humanities Tennessee provided the services of a folklorist advisor to work with the community over the course of their project. As the collection process was projected to last for at least one year, the folklorist was available to work with the community and assist with issues ranging from technical questions, to specific content and subject matter for interviews, to core project themes of community identity and sense of place.

With training under their belts, the EHS volunteers spent the next year collecting more than 30 hours of oral histories from throughout the greater community.  Most of the interviewees were elderly, which is commonplace for many oral history projects, but they were selected to represent a broad spectrum of the local population, including: men, women, African-Americans, farmers, merchants, educators, and community volunteers. Working from transcriptions, the volunteers began to categorize selections from each oral history according to topic and theme. As the collection grew, recurring themes began to emerge from the interviews: rural education, transportation, economics, religion, recreation, race relations, community, and sense of place.

At the same time the EHS volunteers were collecting oral histories, Humanities Tennessee worked to develop a way to present the project on the Web. We had the basic concept of StoryMapper: an Internet-accessible database containing narratives about places, people, organizations, art and artifacts, historical events and groups of events, all related to each other, and tied to a map. But the concept was far from a working model. And though there are any number of Web-based cultural or heritage tourism projects which utilize a map, we wanted to develop a platform that could be easily and inexpensively replicated as well as be versatile enough to apply to many other projects.

Why use a map-based approach for this oral history project? Whether discussing sweeping events such as the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement, analyzing election results during any given November, or contemplating the impact of the Interstate Highway System on small towns throughout the country, maps situate our stories, tie them to specific places, and are among the most useful tools to aid in our ability to understand the world around us. In our case, that world was southern Giles County, an area along the Tennessee/Alabama border, comprised almost entirely or rural farmland bisected by US-31 and I-65. Aside from from the town of Elkton, the largest community in southern Giles County with a population of approximately 500 people, there are a number of smaller communities: Conway, Vinta Mill, Bee Spring, and Bunker Hill. Then there are landmarks, places with shared meaning across community lines, including the Elk River Bridge, Holt Elementary School, and Shady Lawn. As the project meant to explore the personality of community through stories of shared places, a map-based form of presentation seemed only logical since it would provide a linear tour from place to place and from story to story.

As we began working to develop a prototype of StoryMapper, we met a number of setbacks, primarily due to our own limited funding and the challenging technological issues we faced. At first we worked with dedicated database software, only to run into a number of roadblocks when trying to import that data into a Web platform for public presentation. Finally, we brought the concept of StoryMapper to Music City Networks, a Web development company based in Nashville. Using Drupal, an open source content management system (CMS) which is readily adaptable to meet specific needs, we were able to create a functioning prototype which combined the functionality of a mySQL database, the powerfulness of the server-side PHP scripting language, and a robust, mature presentation platform with extensible layout and theming capabilities. Specifying Drupal as the CMS of choice for developing this iteration of StoryMapper has proven to be a good technological fit for the project. We were able to create custom content types to accommodate the three basic elements of all related content. These content types are: 1) A tour, which is any StoryMapper project (in this case, the tour of southern Giles County), 2) A tour stop, which is  any location within that tour (e.g., Shady Lawn, Matt Gardener Homestead Museum, or Elkton), and 3) An artifact . which is any of the attachments (e.g., photographs, audio files, and interview transcriptions) related to the tour stop. By using custom Drupal content types, we can base the data-entry workflow on the specific elements of each content type and eliminate unnecessary data fields, thus streamlining the data-entry windows. In turn, this eases the burden of training and makes the process appear less intimidating to users. Drupal is also renowned for being highly extensible, and we wanted to capitalize on that property of the platform by constructing a specialized installation package for StoryMapper sites. This will allow partner organizations to install and configure a StoryMapper site from a single file, which would include all necessary content types, Drupal modules (which extend the CMS functionality), layout options, and themes.

The first tour stop on the southern Giles County tour is the Shady Lawn truck stop, a gateway business into the community for more than half a century. Through the attached photo and audio artifaces, we learned about the construction of I-65 and how the truck stop was moved from its original location along highway 31-W to its current home along the interstate, as well as how community members felt about the coming of the highway and its effect on their town. The next ­tour stop is the Matt Gardener Homestead Museum. Gardener, once a slave, was a farmer, minister, and educator, and his descendants tell stories of growing up on that farm. The next stop is a former Rosenwald School (currently a church building), and we hear stories about African-American education in the mid-twentieth century, rural South. As the tour progresses, we visit Elkton and the surrounding communities. We hear stories about business and belief, farming and fishing, taverns and churches. When viewed as a whole, the tour provides a broad view into the intricate nature of community through the oral histories of its residents.

We thought the project would take approximately two years to complete. We were correct by half. It took four years from concept to prototype. But, as I said, when you are working with limited financial resources and a group of volunteers who have other careers demanding their time and attention, you have to accept that time tables are made to be ignored. But now that the pilot project is finally complete and the prototype is functional and shows a great deal of promise. What are some potential applications of StoryMapper?

StoryMapper would lend itself well to present, and make accessible, any regional or place-based oral history projects, and there are vast archives of such collections. In keeping with the idea behind the EHS project, StoryMapper could be used to present oral histories of specific places, neighborhoods, towns, or communities. But StoryMapper could also be used to present larger topical collections where geography plays a central role. One might trace the development of the Civil Rights Movement in a particular region, follow the stories of workers from landing to landing along a river shipping route, or map the evolution of a regional style of art as it spreads from one location to the next. Simply put, any oral history collection with fundamental ties to place could be presented through StoryMapper.

Historical and cultural tourism projects also seem a natural fit for StoryMapper. But unlike print media, StoryMapper is not bound by space constraints. A tour can have as many locations, as many photographs, and as many audio or video clips as desired. Indeed, whereas traditional, print media cultural tourism projects are often criticised for their lack of in-depth analysis or interpretation, one could easily overdo it and provide too much information in a similar project using StoryMapper. But even when an oral history component is secondary, or perhaps even non-existent, StoryMapper is an ideal digital solution for interpretive mapping projects, walking or driving tours, and heritage tourism trails. Consider the volume of printed heritage tourism projects (e.g., battlefield tours; quilting, music, and heritage trails; craft studio tours; and historic home walking tours) that are no longer available. Giving those projects a new life on the Internet would simply be a matter of entering the data and publishing the Web site.

These potential applications are exciting to think about. But, like all potential endeavors, they are dependent upon financial and human resources. In the near future, we hope to create more StoryMapper projects and share the application with other historical and cultural organizations so that they might produce projects of their own.

Citation for Article


McCoy, P. (2012). Case study: storymapper– a case study in map-based oral history. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from


McCoy, Paul. “Case Study: StoryMapper– A Case Study in Map-based Oral History,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012,


This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project ( sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  Please consult for information on rights, licensing, and citation.

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