April 2015 | Volume XXXIII, Issue 2 »

The Whole Story, The Whole Library: Storytelling As A Driving Force

April 1, 2015
Janice M. Del Negro, GSLIS Dominican University

I have been teaching storytelling at the graduate level in a variety of settings since the 1980s; currently I teach storytelling at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University in River Forest. One of my former storytelling students returned from a library conference where a well-known presenter stated emphatically that librarians did not tell stories in the library tradition anymore, they only did preschool storytimes and other book-related programs for very young children. This statement came as a surprise to my students, who were engaged in learning how to tell stories to audiences of all ages, and who were attending and observing a wide variety of storytelling events at libraries and other venues in the area. The class wrote a note to the presenter (admittedly it was a little huffy, but they wrote it, not me) and insisted on sending it. E-mail addresses of public figures and professional presenters being relatively easy to find, the message went out immediately. The presenter, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not respond. It isn’t easy to admit that you may be wrong. 

BEING WRONG

The discovery of storytelling by contemporary young professionals has resulted in an explosion of events in bars, restaurants, and other adult venues across the United States. On any given evening, in Chicago alone, it is possible to find multiple storytelling performances and open mics featuring amateur tellers telling autobiographical tales, often with a specific theme and/or time limit. Moth-style storytelling events have spread across the United States, both face-to-face and online, and the personal story reigns supreme.

The leaders of this welcome rediscovery of storytelling by and for adults are often unaware of the long history of storytelling in the wider world, in the United States, in Illinois, and in libraries. They see storytelling as uncharted territory for self-expression and entertainment, and have an irrepressible energy that is both heartening in its enthusiasm and troubling in its lack of context. I admit to initially being remarkably irritated by the unintentional co-opting of a practice so long a part of the library and freelance storytelling professions.
I was wrong.

As a long-time librarian, teacher, writer, storyteller, and workshop leader focused on storytelling at libraries, festivals, and other events, I find the energy at these new storytelling venues both contagious and heartening. The discussion of storytelling as a newly emerging art may be lacking in context, but the tangible energy present at these events is reminiscent of the late twentieth-century storytelling revival, which was fueled by accomplished professional storytellers in festival and library performances, and enthusiastically supported
by librarians. The new popularity of this traditional form is indicative not only of the human need to connect, but the human need for story. Youth services librarians have long spoken of the efficacy of storytelling; it’s past time for librarians as a whole to do the same.

STORYTELLING IN PUBLIC LIBRARIES: AN INCREDIBLY BRIEF HISTORY

The tradition of oral storytelling in public libraries in the United States is easily more than a century old. In the early twentieth-century years of library services to children, storytelling was considered an effective means of connecting school-age children to literature and libraries, since listeners of all ages respond positively to oral stories. Library storytelling programs revolved around world folktales and accepted classics in children’s literature, and such programs helped librarians connect children to their own and other cultures, and ease immigrant children into the American mainstream by connecting them to the public library, a uniquely American institution. (Jackson, 26; Rollock, 6).

In addition to connecting children with books, children’s librarians were determined to connect them to one another,
to the cultures of their peers, and to libraries through active oral storytelling (Moore, “Story”; Olcott, Rational). The training centers for youth services librarians in the early twentieth century included the School of Library Science at Pratt Institute in New York and the Carnegie Library Training School for Children’s Librarians in Pittsburgh. Both curriculums included storytelling as part of the youth services librarians’ professional skills: Frances Jenkins Olcott, director of children’s work at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh and later head of the Carnegie Library Training School, formally incorporated storytelling into her program plan in 1899 (Pellowski, World of Storytelling, 97); Anne Carroll Moore, head of youth services at the New York Public Library, created a position for librarian-storyteller Anna Cogswell Tyler as first Supervisor of Storytelling for the New York Public Library system (Baker, Storytelling, 7). Librarians trained at these two centers took their knowledge of storytelling with them to professional positions across the United States (Baker, Storytelling, 3), and by 1927 there were storytelling programs in 79 percent of the public libraries in the United States, along with storytelling outreach services to park districts, schools, hospitals, and other institutions (Alvey, Historical, 44).

PROGRAMMING AND ADVOCACY: LIBRARY STORYTELLING IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

Today storytelling is taught in graduate schools of library and information science across the country. The benefit of such training is multifold: students not only learn how to identify appropriate stories for a wide variety of developmental stages, they also learn how to most effectively communicate their stories to their listeners. This last is a crucial skill in today’s library environment. The ability to tell the story of the library’s mission in its community is radically important to the development of grassroots support for library services.

Storytelling in its most essential manifestation is at the core of many library programs and lends itself to a dizzying array of effective programming opportunities: young adult storytelling programs include active participation by teens in the telling; local history programs collect community stories from seniors; movie programs for adults capitalize on the modern fascination with fairy tales and contemporary media. Storytelling not only creates community from a group of disparate participants, it also acts as a unifying focus—for family programming, for content development in outreach to schools and other community agencies, and for promoting inclusivity in programming for any age audience, from preschoolers to senior citizens. Every program or event presented in the library, whether executed by librarians or outside presenters, should promote not only the resources of the library but also a positive perception of the agency. A unified philosophy of programming centered on storytelling focuses library efforts in an area that has proven to be effective over time and technological change.

Storytelling is a stealth activity that often moves into professional arenas unrecognized. Most people have a very limited idea of what storytelling actually is, and how it can be effectively utilized not only in programming, but also in management and advocacy. Recent research in neuroscience supports what librarian storytellers have known for decades: human beings are hard-wired for story, and respond to it at a visceral level. Listening to oral stories has been closely connected to the acquisition of literacy skills, the expansion of vocabulary, and the development of active listening skills, but storytelling has also been identified as the single most effective means of persuasion. People are not convinced by statistics and factoids; they are convinced by the stories that emotionally move them. The ability to tell an organization’s story effectively is what moves a community from apathy to advocacy.

Today’s libraries balance on the precarious line between traditional services and technological change. Storytelling, sometimes considered quaint and old-fashioned, bridges the seemingly infinite space between the recent past and the onrushing future. In all its permutations, from digital recordings to preschool story times to annual reports, storytelling can be integrated not only into library programming but also into management, training, and marketing. This cohesive approach allows libraries to offer a consistent, unified vision to their staff and their communities, from programming to outreach to advocacy. Storytelling as the driving philosophy behind library service can serve as a community creator and a focal point for activism. We are long past the moment for taking advantage of the possibilities inherent in a technique that is such a proven success.

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