Stories that Speak to Us: Exhibits from the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives

How do you ulman

Reading the DALN Database: Narrative, Metadata, and Interpretation

by H. Lewis Ulman (author) & Daniel Carter (designer)

Computers and Composition Digital Press2011TextStories that Speak to Us: Exhibits from the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives

Abstract | Three of the most characteristic and unique features of the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN) as a collection of personal literacy narratives are its size (3,600-plus narratives), its instantiation as a publicly accessible digital database, and the fact that it is a self-archiving repository—many different individuals, not just one researcher or research team, have recorded and described its contents. These features present interpretive challenges and opportunities, and this exhibit suggests strategies and provides custom tools for reading the evolving contents of the DALN database—metadata and narratives considered together as a network of meaning—and for discovering clusters of narratives that might reward reading in relationship to one another and the entire database, clusters and relationships that users of the DALN might not discover without tools that guide them beyond their experience and expectations. The heuristic tools provide productive ways to interpret the information in the DALN as random, messy, emergent, intersecting with outside data, multifaceted, and fluid. Reading the database, as explored here, means not only analyzing the existing database in concert with close reading of individual narratives in order to discover networks of relationship in which meaning arises, but also tracking the evolving nature of the database, the data within it, and the capabilities and applications of tools for data analysis that can complement our reading of individual narratives.

About the Curators | H. Lewis Ulman, Associate Professor of English and Director of Digital Media Studies, teaches courses at The Ohio State Unversity in digital media, environmental humanities, electronic textual editing, and literacy studies. He has authored two books and published articles on eighteenth-century British philosophy and rhetoric, American nature writing, and digital media. Over the past seven years, he has collaborated with his students on six electronic textual editions of previously unpublished nineteenth- and twentieth-century American manuscripts. With Professor Cynthia L. Selfe, he co-founded and co-directs the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives, a publicly available archive of over 3,600 personal literacy narratives in a variety of formats (text, video, audio) that document the literacy practices and values of contributors.

Daniel Carter has an M.A. in English from The Ohio State University and a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Texas. He designs, codes and researches digital objects. You can find him online at

Technical Requirements | This exhibit should be readable in recent versions of any Web browser running on Mac, Windows, or Linux platforms. To use the tools embedded in the exhibit, users may have to enable JavaScript in their browser’s preferences, but it will most likely be enabled by default. The downloadable files in the DALN Heuristic Toolkit require various external programs (instructions for using individual files appear in the text of the exhibit and/or in the files themselves):

  • .kml files: These files can be displayed by Google Maps ( and with Google Earth, a free application that can be downloaded for PC, Mac, or Linux from
  • .xls and .csv files: These files can be used in Microsoft Excel (recommended) or any other spreadsheet application that can open those formats.
  • .html files: These files can be opened in any Web browser with JavaScript enabled.
  • .zip files: Users will need to “unzip” these files, which contain text transcripts of narratives in the DALN, either by double-clicking on the file or unzipping them with a free utility such as Stuffit Expander, available for PC and Mac at
  • .txt files: These text files can be opened with any application on any platform that opens plain text files, but the exhibit discusses analyzing the corpora with free text analysis applications such as AntConc ( and Voyant Tools (

Cite this Exhibit

MLA: Ulman, H. Lewis. “Reading the DALN Database: Narrative, Metadata, and Interpretation.” Stories That Speak to Us: Exhibits from the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives. Site designed by Daniel Carter. Ed. H. Lewis Ulman, Scott Lloyd DeWitt, & Cynthia L. Selfe. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press, 2013. Web.

APA: Ulman, H. L. (2013). Reading the DALN Database: Narrative, Metadata, and Interpretation. D. Carter (design). In H. L. Ulman, S. L. DeWitt, & C. L. Selfe (Eds.), Stories that Speak to Us: Exhibits from the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press.

Computers and Composition Digital Press Logo