Ingram Blog

Power or Storytelling Part 3: Libraries’ Stories

Kathryn Shaw, Manager of Collection Development Programs 

We humans are social animals. And because narrative provides context, relevance, and an emotional impact that light up our brains, we pay attention to stories.

Indeed, storytelling is a primary go-to tactic that many leaders, entertainers, marketers, and educators use to engage, inform, and motivate their constituents. TED talks, for example, are all about stories, and they have exploded in popularity in the last decade or so. The best stand-up comedians are, inarguably, expert storytellers, as are top salespeople. And CEOs use narrative to illustrate their organization’s purpose and future success.

Even scientists construct narratives. The scientific community more and more emphasizes the importance of storifying data to explain their work, create trust in the science, and perhaps foster change. “There is no scientific method without the narrative thread that holds the whole enterprise together,” says Marina Konnikova, Ph.D., and author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Going by the number of books published in recent years targeted to STEM professionals but that highlight the value of narrative, Ms.Konnikova makes an excellent argument.

In almost any situation, for almost any discipline or industry, true stories make things more convincing and effectual. And, in terms of products and services, more buyable or fundable.

What better way, then, to support libraries and the needs of their communities in a pandemic environment -- or at any other time -- than by telling their stories? At Library Journal’s Virtual Summit 2020 (now available to watch on demand), Deborah Hakes, Communications and Marketing Director for Georgia Public Library Services (GPLS), explains how stories are central to her organization’s successful marketing plan. Data + stories = a “powerful combination,” she says in a session titled Getting the Word Out.

As with any mode of communication, knowing one’s audience is essential. So Ms. Hakes and her colleague, Roy Cummings, write stories about patrons learning English as a second a language, for example, or training for a new career using resources at public libraries throughout Georgia. But they also pitch stories, including one the Atlanta Journal Constitution published, that resonate with stakeholders and supporters who may not personally use the library.

Clearly, it’s a strategy that works, because not only did GPLS win LJ’s 2020 Marketer of the Year Award, it also minimized cuts from Georgia public libraries’ state funding last year, amid widespread economic upheaval due to the virus. Other government agencies in Georgia saw their budgets shrink 10-16%, but public libraries saw their funding decrease by only 2.8%. Moreover, Georgia public libraries see no reduction in funding for fiscal year 2021.

Storytelling is fundamental to everything GPLS does," says Georgia State Librarian, Julie Walker.  “We are building awareness of the value of libraries…so that even those who choose not to use [them] still see libraries as an essential public service worthy of funding and support.”

And this, insists John Chrastka, is precisely what libraries must do – strategically – to secure stable funding and the ability to thrive in what he identifies as an imminent economic crisis within the public sector. Chrastka is Executive Director of EveryLibrary, a nonprofit that advocates for funding of public, school, and academic libraries.

In his LJ Virtual Summit session, Advocating for Library Budgets in Times of Austerity, Chrastka fervently calls for ongoing and evolving communications plans, the heart of which should be a potent mix of data and true stories.

In times of financial uncertainty and restraint, he recommends those stories be not only about, say, children’s story times or YA makerspaces, but also about effective programs that address shared hometown concerns. A library’s stories should answer questions, such as How does the library respond to those concerns? Where in the community do library programs fill gaps? What does the library need to continue to offer important services, and perhaps expand on those services, equitably and effectively?

Ultimately, funders want to see their money go to programs that fulfill library values, vision, and mission. Municipal, county, and state governments are more likely to uphold funding for libraries providing programs that speak to local issues of broad social impact, such as workforce retraining, early childhood education, or housing and food security.

There are many ways, however, for libraries to respond to issues affecting their hometowns. Recent National Geographic and Atlantic articles highlight some innovative methods libraries now use to address their communities’ needs when buildings open to limited capacity or remain closed. Some libraries now ship materials to patrons who can’t pick them up via curbside service, which most libraries implemented upon restarting service. In addition to moving programming online, many libraries have partnered with local food banks to become food distribution centers. 

There are libraries now amplifying their WIFI signals, purchasing hotspots for checkout, or providing roaming hotspots to patrons without reliable internet connection. Some libraries have used their idle 3D printers to create face masks and other PPE items for first responders. Others have transformed their now empty foyers and hallways into daytime respite centers for the homeless or to provide free mental health services.

Now more than ever, it’s imperative that libraries tell their narratives – to themselves and to the communities they serve. The problem is, well, let’s face it: as a rule, librarians are not a particularly flamboyant, self-aggrandizing bunch (I’m a librarian; I’m allowed to say this). But 2020 showed us that libraries must promote themselves more actively and loudly, and it appears that 2021 provides a perfect opportunity to do so. A new year is also a great time for libraries to begin forging and strengthening partnerships with other agencies in order to make programming multi-purpose in scope and service.

In rare, fortuitous circumstances, there might be patrons who publicly declare their love for their local library, like this Bexley, Ohio patron did in an October issue of The Washington Post.

The good news is that there’s SO much to sing about, especially during coronavirus, not despite coronavirus. What libraries have overcome and achieved in the last eight or nine months are stories our constituencies should hear. They’re stories our communities want to hear. Those stories are newsworthy and will help anchor libraries even more strongly to their communities in the face of possible budget cuts.

We’d love to hear your library’s stories! Please share on social media and tag us using #thelibrarylife

Suggested titles for further reading:

Telling Science Stories: Reporting, Crafting, and Editing for Journalists and Scientists (3/31/20) \ Martin W. Angler

Unleash the Power of Storytelling: Win Hearts, Change Minds, Get Results (2/13/18) \ Rob Biesenbach

Contagious: Why Things Catch On (3/5/13) \ Jonah Berger

Storytelling in the Digital Age: Guide for Nonprofits (6/16/17) \ Julia Campbell

Let the Story do the Work: The Art of Storytelling for Business Success (7/27/17) \ Esther Choy

Effective Data Storytelling: How to Drive Change with Data, Narrative, and Visuals (12/17/19) \ Brent Dykes

Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds (3/4/14) \ Carmine Gallo

Effective Storytelling Step by Step (2020 edition): Captivate, Engage, and Influence Your Audience (12/7/19) \ O.G Goaz

Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story (3/1/11) \ Peter Guber

Stories That Stick: How Storytelling Can Captivate Customers, Influence Audiences, and Transform Your Business (9/24/19) \ Kindra Hall

Everyday Business Storytelling: Create, Simplify, and Adapt a Visual Narrative for Any Audience (2/17/21) \ Janine Kurnoff and Lee Lazarus