The Power of Story

Stories are everywhere: on our shelves, on our screens, and in our conversations. They compose the shows we stream and the ads we tolerate, the news we read and the news we share. As Jonathan Safran Foer wrote, “We live in a world made up more of story than stuff.” We make sense of and share our lives through stories.

The power and pervasiveness of narrative is so exciting to me and something I’ve thought a lot about during the past two years in library school. As I bid farewell to hacking library school, narrative power is the final ‘story’ that I want to share.

In libraries and archives, stories often feature quite explicitly. Our shelves and electronic resources include narratives of every kind, and storytelling is a familiar feature in any library that offers children’s programming. But story in libraries—and story anywhere—can be much bigger than those examples. Thanks to countless conversations with colleagues, friends, advisors, and even a few strangers, I’ve been thinking about how integral good storytelling is to teaching, to marketing, to advocacy, and even to getting a job. Explaining a tricky concept to someone else? Tell a story that puts the concept in context. Marketing or advocating for library services to your stakeholders? Tell a story about why they matter. Writing a cover letter? Tell a story about you, drawing your experiences together.

But why stories? you might ask. What can stories do?

In all of the situations I just mentioned, story is a powerful tool for sharing information with someone else and convincing them that it matters. According to cognitive psychologist, Daniel Willingham, the human mind seems particularly tuned to understand and remember stories. Psychologists sometimes describe stories as “psychologically privileged,” meaning that our minds treat them differently than other types of material. Research in psychology and education has indicated that this is true for many reasons:

Stories are engaging. Research in cognitive psychology has suggested that stories are inherently absorbing and interesting, largely because readers and listeners make inferences and problem-solve in order to understand them.

Stories aid comprehension and memory. They include familiar structures, sequencing, and repetitive vocabulary, which guide attention and support comprehension. Furthermore, narrative structures are built on cause and effect relationships. When reading or listening to a story, people make connections based on causality and this focus aids memory.

Stories encourage empathy. Good stories engage us in imagination and empathy, inviting us to see ourselves in their characters. In this way, stories help people to connect personally to the concepts involved.

Stories contextualize information. Finally, they help us to make sense of information by demonstrating the significance or application of various ideas.

In the information professions, we can draw on stories in so many ways—from explaining and sharing ideas to making spaces for the narratives of others. In other words, we can be both tellers and listeners as we interact with patrons, share services, and curate materials. I see that as such a meaningful role. The chance to share and listen and to build community through that process is one of the parts of working in libraries that I love most. It is also what I have appreciated most about Hack Library School. I’m so grateful to this community of story sharers and listeners.

My story as a library school student is rapidly drawing to a close. Despite the inevitable sadness, nostalgia, and anxiety that that ending entails, I am excited about the chapters to come.

How do you see the role of stories in libraries? In life? What’s your ‘story’ equivalent—what inspires you?

Selected Story Sources

Andrews, D. H., Hull, T. D., & DeMeester, K. (2010). Storytelling as an instructional method: research perspectives. Rotterdam; Boston: Sense Publishers.

Brock, T., Green, M. C., & Strange, J. J. (2002). Narrative impact: social and cognitive foundations. Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Egan, K., & McEwan, H. (1995). Narrative in teaching, learning, and research. New York: Teachers College Press.

Willingham, D. T. (2004). The privileged status of story. American Educator, 28(2), 43–45; 51–53.

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