Museums and the Web 2005
generic Storymaker homepage

Reports and analyses from around the world are presented at MW2005.

Storymaker: User-generated Content - Worthy Or Worthwhile?

Graham Howard, SSL Ltd, Jon Pratty, 24 Hour Museum and Mike Stapleton, SSL Ltd., United Kingdom


Some Web initiatives in the UK such as Moving Here and the BBC's WW2 People's War site solicit content and memories from members of the public. In a museological as well as a publishing context, material like this can be difficult to classify (and often hard to read.) Is it historically relevant if it has not been checked or corroborated? How should this material be placed in an editorial context? For these (and other) reasons, some in the museum sector find it hard to give user-generated content a significant place in the museum, archive or institutional Web site.

The 24 Hour Museum ( and System Simulation have built an open authoring tool which channels user-generated content called Storymaker. Storymaker attempts to defuse or work around the apparent pitfalls mentioned above about this type of content. This mini-workshop demonstrates, in live Web sessions with the tool, how the 24 HM system offers two differing routes through the tool for different types of user.

First, we have an easy-access instant participation route, requiring careful editorial contextualisation to ensure appropriate responses from the public; second, we have a supervised, password-protected group use situation, where all sorts of interactions from history and community groups can be encouraged.

We'll look at how material generated like this can be presented in a worthwhile and engaging way to a general Web audience, and how Web sites need to be sensitive to the multiple needs of groups when the content being solicited might be historically or emotionally sensitive.  The workshop also examines how the content sits in local community sections on our new City Heritage Guide sites. Content is now flowing in and the sites are live on the Web.

Keywords: community groups, storytelling, registration, writing, images, content, user-generated

Communicating Content

There are an increasing number of Web sites that elicit content from members of the public. Typically these sites provide a focus for the recording and sharing of memories about a particular topic. The BBC's People's War ( ) encourages site users to recall their experiences during the Second World War.

Users can enter text including basic parameters of place and time; these elements are used as organising metadata for the presentation of the text on the site. You can go to a theatre of war, say North Africa, in a particular year, say 1943, and then you can read the contributions. Naturally, for such an open system the quality of the writing and the significance of the reminiscences varies enormously.

But the BBC has not left everything to chance: there are house rules for the site. These range from simple guidance like 'treating others with respect', to disciplinary procedures to make sure that rules are upheld.

Of course the material remains at the level of personal reminiscence: the stories are not crosschecked or corroborated. Neither is it subjected to further metadata tagging, so even where stories may intermingle, the reader may never discover this. Some of these things have tended to deter the museum community from pursuing this sort of public contribution. However there are strong social and political reasons why such sites can enhance people's understanding and experience.

A site that is increasingly effective in this arena is Moving Here (, designed to record and elucidate 200 years of migration to England. This is mainly from the point of view of the Caribbean, Irish, Jewish and South Asian communities, but this base is widening all the time. Moving Here is put together by a consortium of 30 local, regional and national museums, archives and libraries from across England.

The site includes ways to trace your roots, migration histories, and other associated material, as well as the opportunity to contribute your own story. The site is enhanced by material from the museums, including histories, texts, images and sound recordings. An important aspect of the approach is evident in the ICT training manual on how to use Moving Here, which is featured on the site. As well as setting out ways to get people going with the technology, it encourages the use of the site by groups. This has started to embed the site in the community.

24 Hour Museum's City Heritage Guides ( follows on from this strategy. The site was funded by the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) project Culture Online. It has been created so that communities in specific cities in the UK can contribute stories about their locality. To enable this, a software tool called Storymaker, was developed by System Simulation with the 24 Hour Museum.

generic Storymaker homepage

Fig 1: Generic Storymaker homepage


Storymaker is a community-authoring tool specifically set up to enable best practice in this area, whilst endeavouring to avoid a number of the pitfalls that beset other sites. Storymaker encourages the formation of groups and of group work. It allows users to work both as part of a group or individually a personal story.

All group members can read their group's stories.  Groups can be set up so that all members can edit stories or so that only selected members can. This allows use in a variety of different group arrangements: a group could be very flat and democratic or it could be hierarchical, with individuals submitting stories to an editor.

logging in to Storymaker

Fig 2: Logging in to Storymaker

City Heritage Guides

Visitors to the City Heritage Guides on the 24 Hour Museum site have the option to Get involved via a homepage graphic linking to a landing page for Storymaker. There is an explanation of the two different types of users who can write their own stories: the individual who wishes to create something alone, and the group wishing to work on a larger piece of work. These people are respectively unregistered users and registered users.

Unregistered content

Fig 3:  Unregistered content as it appears to the user

Unregistered Users

If you wish to proceed as an individual, then you can immediately start putting in your story. You are asked for a title and then for your name as a contributor. You have an option to let your name go forward to the Web site with your story. Then clicking Add paragraph makes a new box appear on the form into which you can start writing your story. As you enter your text, you also have the option to add an image which will be associated with this paragraph.

You simply browse your file system to find the correct image and select it. When you add an image, you are also asked to give it a caption. Clicking Add image and caption  means your choice is confirmed, and then you can add a new paragraph and continue to enter text, adding images with paragraphs as you proceed.

You can also go back and alter the images you have chosen, by either deleting them or replacing them. When you feel that you have got most of your story complete, then it is a good idea to go to Preview.

This gives you a preview of how your story will look on the Web. When you are satisfied with it, you can go to Finish. Here you enter the place the story relates to, the time when the story happened, and your categorisation of the story. Also at this point as a non-registered user you are asked for some further details: your name, e-mail address, telephone number, and postal address.

This latter information is required for non-registered users so that the 24 Hour Museum can contact you, discuss your story and suggest alterations before the story is published on the City Heritage Web site.

The structuring of the content into 'chunks' of paragraphs and images allows for the use of different layouts on the site itself. When content has been prepared in this way and is sent to the editor, the editors at the 24 Hour Museum can then work on the material, ensuring quality, sensitivity, as well as legality, before publication on the Web site.

Registered Users

The general procedure with registered users is similar to that of unregistered users, with a few important exceptions. At the start you are required to log in with a Username and Password. In most circumstances this will have been given to you as a member of a group working together on stories about your area. All registration is done directly with the 24 Hour Museum - there is no on-line registration facility.

As a registered user you are able to return to your stories stored in the 24 Hour Museum system. If you are a group member, you can also return to other people's stories. However, you may only have read-only access to their stories. This will depend upon how you have been set up as a user in your group. There are three types of registration: one is read-only, the second is read/write, and the third is administrative access which allows access to the details of the group.

Community Focus

Fig 4: Community Focus use Storymaker because it is flexible for their group users

Flexible groups

Storymaker has been designed to enable flexible group work. There is the possibility that a teacher could act as a group facilitator, for example, setting up read-only sessions for pupils and then read/write sessions when they are under direct supervision. Or a more self-disciplined community group could decide that all members could have read/write access and then make joint decisions about what and when to send to the editor.

Because the system will maintain stories over a long period of time, a group can use it as a central focus in its development of ideas, giving a real sense of community ownership of the material and of the site. From the users' point of view, this is much like working with a group on an Intranet facility, but without any of the technical requirements of such a set up.


One issue which concerns many museums when considering getting the public contribute to a community Web site is the varied quality of the material that results. Without mediation, this can lead to disaster. But what level of mediation is best? Too much mediation can result in the very voices which the site was set up to encourage becoming lost in the homogenised final product.

To avoid either of these extremes requires careful thought, well considered policies and professional editing. This way both the community producing the material is well served and the members of the public visiting the site are excited by the level and range of the content they can access. This will lead to the formation of new contributing groups and the enrichment and growth of the site.

A site that relies in this way upon the public to contribute its raw material, the host site to construct an appropriate environment, and its editors to review, edit and adjust the material so that it is shown in its most effective manner, is not unlike a garden, which works by using a similar approach. The plants need to be interesting in the first place, the space into which they are being put needs to be appropriate, and then the gardener needs to feed, prune and maintain the plants in order that they are shown to their best effect.

What this also shows is that it is a continuous process. A site with public contributions cannot just be put out there and left to get on with it by itself. Just like a garden, it will become overrun with less interesting material, and parts will be empty and barren. Continual maintenance and good editorial activity are vital if the site is to continue to prosper, both from the point of view of the contributors and of the visitors.

Raymond Aldous' story

Fig 5:  Raymond Aldous' story, The Coal Round, as published

Storymaker Content - What Is Being Sent In?  

From the moment the Web pages were sent live, it was clear that simply leaving the facility to run itself was not an option. A variety of types of writing, in various styles were being inputted. This was foreseen by editorial staff at 24 HM, but developing precise rules or orthodoxies for soliciting content was seen as something that would be best done when the system was up and running. We also had the rest of the City Heritage Guides Web site to finish, populate with content, and launch to the public.

One early lesson learned from setting up Storymaker was this: because of our funding remit from Culture Online, the marketing effort for the site was targeted at key audiences like children, lifelong learners, those at risk of social exclusion and those not currently served by the Web. This didn't in fact suit the preferred editorial approach of selecting one key user group per city and then working closely with it to use Storymaker in a directed, curated way.

So what kinds of writing were coming in? Typical write-only session (i.e. the non-password protected, single use situation) content would be a single paragraph of reminiscence from an individual. Because these contributors are often not professional writers, it's natural to expect a variable standard of punctuation, spelling and grammar. 24 HM staff, if making use of the content, correct the technical errors, but try to leave the flavour of the writing intact.

What is a clear structural problem, however, occurs when users decide to submit their copy anonymously. This has become a clear challenge to the editorial standards of the Web site. If museological standards and posterity are to be borne in mind, it's key to be able to corroborate facts, name spellings and so on in copy.

The next version of Storymaker must include some mandatory address, telephone number or email fields to enable staff to contact authors to check some details. While it may be acceptable for some user-generated content projects to accept unchecked, unmediated content, the reality of publishing such copy will inevitably mean the watering down of important intellectual standards such as factual truth and accuracy.

Here's an example of content submitted without an address:

my name is XXXXX, I grew up in nechells gt lister st our house backed on to rupert st underneath those big gasometers they are one of the few things that have not changed in that area. the next road going towards the town is proctor st, thats where we used to meet outside the little Brit pub which still operates we would play football swap stories thats what teenagers did in the mid fifties money was tight.most of my friends lived in proctor st or nearby Arthur cook jim Roach who played football for the villa reserves also the blues there was Ray Ward,Elfie Grice nipper Blake but in particular my best mate John Killigrew the killer. John sadly died in a car crash around 1978 as did jim roach and Art Cook about ten years before that all young men with young families. the gist of the story is John the killer as he was known, wanted to be a rock star nothing else just a rock star he self taught on guitar, banjo, piano, harmonica, you name it he would play it sooner or later. He was not an Elvis or a jerry Lee but very single minded he knew what he wanted and worked hard at it. I did six years in the army and came out in 1965 made contact with John who was living in saltley with his wife and a couple of children, he was playing at the Oliver Cromwell public house that weekend i went along and he was very good, i moved to the Isle of Wight, where i still live but allways went back to brum and from time to time heard good things about John his career was goin fine he had turned out a couple of LP,s and i heard he was performing in the USA, then i heard about the accident very sad teetotaller dident smoke all he wanted as the song said was music, music, music. so this is for you John. the Killer play us a song from our youth John Peggy sue or that will be the day play it loud and let it rock John Jerry Lee ? sure thats okay you allways said you,d be a rock star out on the street you sang and you swayed rock and roll was what you lived for rock and roll was what you played Some people laughed and said he,s crazy grown up wrong Irish blood sneered and said he wont make it but they were wrong cause the Killer would The gigs you played have different names now different singers modern styles not like your rock show john the killer really drove them wild Up on the stage under the bright lights thats the place for a birmingham boy I see your face and hear you singing in that big concert in the sky Rock and roll will live forever rock and roll will never die the ones who said you wouldent make it they hurt you then but told a lie. The Killer

Unpublished text submitted by an individual to 24 HM Storymaker program. Although the author did attach a name to the story, he neglected to send any contact details.

Now clearly there are some good directions here for our researchers to follow up. The Birmingham music scene saw the rise in the 1960's and 1970's of bands like the Move, Roy Wood and Wizzard, The Electric Light Orchestra, Duran Duran and UB40, to name but a few.

Music heritage is an aspect of recent history largely shunned by the museum sector, so this particular piece of content has become a test of the 24 HM site's policies. Do we try to track down the writer? Do we publish the story and invite contributions? Would the authors have more stories, or even some pictures - especially of 'the killer?' At the moment we're not publishing such content, unless there's little risk of legal complications. Clearly, if we did publish content that came from an un-named source, and the author later wanted to re-assume control of the copyright of his piece, he would find it legally difficult, though 24 HM would, of course, take a socially responsible line on this.

Scotswood Road Memories

Fig 6: Scotswood Road Memories, anonymously submitted, but combined with some great historic pictures to match

Where there's clearly no problem, we do publish. Fig. 6 shows a Newcastle story that came in to Storymaker with no author name, but which we were able add value to by teaming it up with some pictures from a local on-line collection: a key way to bring alive this kind of work. 


Staff become really excited when the marketing effort, editorial values and Web site design all come together to produce a concrete outcome that demonstrates everything the project team worked to build.

The Norwich stories sent in by Raymond Aldous are a perfect example of this.  Raymond first sent in a small story about a boyhood coal round in his home city of Norwich, in the East of England. Raymond is a retired ex-merchant seaman who inputs his stories using Storymaker from his local branch library, since he has no Web connection at home.

Raymond has a great storytelling manner, and 24 HM staff quickly seized upon his work as a cornerstone of the local history section in Norwich. He was given a password so that he can return to his work and re-edit it. The second piece he submitted was a narrative reminiscence  about the Norfolk floods of 1953 that resulted in the death of around 300 people in the eastern counties. He is now sending in his third story, about his early years in the Scouting movement. Here are two of Raymond's stories:

Another success is the contributions of the Community Focus Group from North London. This is a local history group who write about their environment with emphasis on disability access, as several members of the group are wheelchair users. Being able to use Storymaker means that some members who can't get to group meetings to add copy can do so from home using their group-user passwords. Read some Community Focus content: 

Jim Brade from Liverpool sent us a great campaigning story, asking readers to get involved with the effort to 'save the Florrie', a Victorian boys' club in a run-down part of the city. After he sent in a story using the single-session method, site staff tracked Jim down using Google, and then invited him to make a bigger story with members of his group helping. Read their story here: 


Storymaker has been carefully designed and implemented to give a flexible and easy experience for users, whilst enabling the maintenance of good editorial standards. The aim has been to allow new stories of real social and cultural worth to be told in an engaging and lively manner. The resulting sites are designed to grow and flourish and form resources for the future.

To avoid the mishmash of unsolicited content becoming unusable, site staff will be deploying Storymaker in a targeted, topical, themed manner. Calls for content will go out in such a way as to ask for memories in a structured form. For example, at Chinese New Year, we'll be asking for stories about that. We'll actively seek out groups to work with to join in, to make sure the facility is offered to groups who are really in a position to know about the subject. That way, the Storymaker inbox will fill with content that already has a publishing context, and that's an important consideration when considering the needs of the readers.

Versions of this on-line authoring tool are now being deployed by System Simulation and the 24 Hour Museum on a variety of other museum and cultural heritage sites.

The workshop

The workshop will feature live interactions with Storymaker so that you can see exactly how it works and what it feels like to use it. There will also be discussion of the issues surrounding the provision of this sort of public access and what strategies are employed by the 24 Hour Museum to create a successful, engaging and sensitive site.


Derrick, C. (2003). Children as Co-Designers, Input CBBC Presentation,  DIGITAL CHILDHOODS, The Future of Learning for the Under-10s Transcript notes from presentation, nesta futurelab. Robinson College, Cambridge. 5 March 2003.

Durbin, G. (2004). "Learning from Amazon and eBay: User-generated Material for Museum Web Sites." in D. Bearman and J. Trant (eds). Museums and the Web 2004: Proceedings.

Cite as:

Howard, G., J. Pratty and M. Stapleton, Storymaker: User-generated Content - Worthy Or Worthwhile? , in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 31, 2005 at