Digitizing Our Stories: Why Narrative Matters Most in Libraries

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Kelly Minta.


An employee outreach poster from Los Angeles’ first transportation library, Los Angeles Railway, which is now the Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Library.

The concept of librarians creating content and using grassroots promotional techniques to present libraries to the public isn’t a new idea, but it is happening in more innovative ways today.   The creation of content, whether on interactive user-generated sites or through articles, charts, images, and other storytelling mediums, is no longer an alternative to conventional means of public outreach and collection development. Rather, it is a necessity as libraries build stronger web presences.  Creating a digital space for people to visit the library is equally as important as creating a physical space for users.

As a graduate student who has studied and interned in public libraries, academic libraries, and archives, I have been able to see firsthand that the creation of content and dissemination of information in all types of library institutions is vital.  Not only are library users educated about the collection of materials, this is also a way to garner attention from those who do not patronize the institution.  The librarians who create this content are tech savvy writers and storytellers who understand the value of imparting narrative into a library or archive’s collection in order to add significance to people’s lives.

The concept of service is one that librarianship is founded on, and it can be very difficult to change the collective mindset of librarians away from conventional reference services to service via original web content.  I recently interned for a public library and was able to see firsthand that the culture of public libraries is often so focused on in-person service that they may fail to see the entire audience of users who are at home on laptops, sitting in classes or meetings with tablets, or out shopping with smartphones.  These are people that the library could be reaching – people who crave data and information that is useful, informative and accessible.  These are people who care about their communities and libraries and, while they might not visit the physical location, still support the library’s mission.  Digital spaces for libraries are more than an online representation of our physical ones – they are another wing of the library, a separate sphere for education and collaboration that draws users into the library via new and usable information.

Almost all libraries and archives have an online catalog (albeit fewer archives seem to have a robust presentation of their collections), but there needs to be more than just a website with a search bar for users to determine what information they would like to use.  Instead, librarians should be using the digital tools that are available all over the internet to create interesting and usable information.  Storytelling and narrative should be important aspects of information dissemination if libraries and archives are to prove their viability and become a necessary resource in the lives of the people they serve.

Digital Resources Librarians such as Nathan Masters, a staff writer at the University of Southern California Libraries, and Kenn Bicknell, the author of the Primary Resources Blog at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Library (where I currently intern), are great examples of librarians who are taking information and making it usable, relevant, and interesting to a wider audience beyond those who use the physical space of the library.  These librarians are able to use their technology skills to educate a community of online library consumers.  Through research and writing, these types of blogs and articles shed light on local history as well as on the resources that libraries and archives have to offer.  Not only are these posts entertaining, they are relevant and educational.

The future of libraries is in creative outlets for information.  Blogs serve this purpose, as do other media outlets such as YouTube, Tiki-Toki, PeoplePlotr, History Pin, and Flickr.  As technology and media platforms change, so should the way libraries present information to the public.  The information and resources that libraries present to users can and should be more than a catalog of materials or monthly fliers about events.  By making information more than a catalog of data, resources become more valuable to those who need it most, and the profession becomes more about design and conception of information rather than just directory services.

What we do with information is just as important as the availability of that information.  I would go as far as to argue that without making information and resources known through content creation, we are doing a disservice to the public and users of libraries and archives across the country.  As we evaluate the future of libraries we can no longer neglect the digital realm of services, which need to serve users on a different level than in-person service, and which are aimed at an audience that might differ greatly than the groups that use the library’s physical space.  This is not a supplemental service, but a vital one that educates and reaches out to users who need it just as much as people who use the books and computers at brick and mortar libraries.

Sadly, in many libraries, especially public institutions, digital resources and services are viewed as supplemental.  How can we shape the future environment of libraries so that digital resources are more easily integrated into libraries’ strategic service plans?

Kelly Minta is a graduate student at the School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. She spent 4 years working for the Chicago Public Library prior to this, and now interns for the Los Angeles Transportation Library and Archive, and works for L.A. as Subject (a research alliance dedicated to promoting access to archival material) as a planner for an MLIS residency program. She blogs about libraries at kellyatthelibrary.blogspot.com and about crafts at homespunhumbles.blogspot.com. When she’s not at school or at a library, Kelly is probably sewing stuffed animals or watching 30 Rock.

5 replies

  1. Kelly,

    Great post. To respond to your question, I think that part of the answer involves straying away from generalizations. Library professionals should first and foremost look at who in the community uses digital resources, and who does not, and how digital resources are being used, and how they can be used. Digital access is not necessarily normative of every specific community and environment, both in the US and abroad; however, asking how much energy and how much of our resources we should devote to being prevantative and allowing a transition into the digital is certainly an issue.

    I’m about to start implementing an ILS from scratch at a special library that is relatively small. One of the questions I asked the management of the special library, who has not previously thought about any library web presence, was how they imagined the community interacting with a library website if it did exist. The drawing board was thus invented. Finding a place to start the conversation seems to be as important as the conversation itself.



  2. Greg,
    I agree with you that digital library spaces do not reach the full, or even majority of many libraries’ audiences. And obviously having a physical space is more important in almost all libraries, but you’re right that we need to be talking about digital spaces and resources as the expectation for these things becomes more prevalent. And I think that we are still in the beginning stages of understanding how users want to be able to interact with libraries online.


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