TELL ME A STORY
by Marylaine Block
I'm not sure there's any impulse more basic in human nature than storytelling. It's how we define who we are and make sense of the world around us. Libraries have always been a repository of those stories. Offering people a chance to tell their stories may be one of the most significant gifts we can offer our community.
The December issue of American Libraries was all about storytelling. One article was about the Story Corps Oral History Project <http://www.storycorps.net/>, a project inspired by the Federal Writers Project recordings of the 1930s and Studs Terkel's interviews with people from all walks of life, which demonstrated that everybody has a story to tell, and everybody wants to be listened to. Story Corps is a joint creation of NPR, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Its project staff tour the country with a mobile studio, recording oral history interviews.
The beauty of this project is that it's not the staff who conduct the interviews, but friends or relatives of the interviewee. That's why the product is more than a moment of history captured on tape; it's also a conversation begun between these two, a new understanding and respect for the elder's previously untold stories of burdens, triumphs, and lessons learned. The project's founder, David Isay, says this is a concept that can "continue the library's legacy as a place where people gather and have human connections with each other." Not only are libraries the logical place to digitize, catalog, and store those histories, librarians are the most appropriate agents to keep the interviews going.
Another article discusses how Alaska librarians preserved and digitized the forgotten, crumbling tapes of two long-ago oral history ptojects the Alaska Native Interviews and Songs and Legends: Alaska Native Oral Literature. The resulting set of 200 CDs was then distributed to schools, libraries, and village organizations serving the communities whose elders' words were captured on those CDs, and an index was posted on the net <http://www.ankn.uaf.edu/NPE/songslegends/>. The author notes the delight on the faces of people "encountering voices that continue to preserve their culture through the oral culture of storytelling."
Perhaps as important as the CDs themselves, though, is the statement made by the preservation effort itself: these stories deserve to be honored and passed on to all Alaskans, and they are worth the money and time it takes to do it.
Take a look at a project by the Ann Arbor Public Library, called Picture Ann Arbor, intended "to gather, capture and share information and images that reflect everyday life in our community"
<http://www.aadl.org/services/products/pictureAnnArbor>. They've invited residents to bring their old photos, letters, postcards, brochures, pamphlets, and such to regularly scheduled scanning sessions. This would be a wonderful way for libraries to gather not only pictures but the stories that go along with them.
These projects are fundamentally librarian-initiated and librarian-controlled, though, and one thing we know about young people is that if we just give them the tools and stay out of their way, they'd much rather do it themselves. Luke Rosenberger, in "lbr (Librarians by Request)," suggests "How about equipment and software so more people can start doing their own remixing, their own mashups, their own podcasting?" <http://lbr.library-blogs.net/out_of_the_clubs.htm>. K. Matthew Danes of CopyCense picks up on that idea <http://www.copycense.com/2005/12/mics_the_librar.html>, suggesting that librarians might create "Whisper Rooms" with audio and podcasting equipment people could play around with, and maybe even get Apple and M-Audio to "promote a remix/mashup contest that asks aspiring neighborhood producers to submit work to the library."
Doesn't that make sense? Think of all the years that libraries have been the place young writers go for the inspiration, resources, and reflection that help them create their own works. Wouldn't this be a way for libraries to provide that same kind of inspiration for generations that use every available medium to tell their stories?
And what stories might we encourage them to tell? Their own stories, of course, but why not our story as well -- the story of "how the library changed my life."
That's what Sandra Singh of the Vancouver Public Library did. Knowing that statistics only tell what a library did, not the impact it had on individuals and the community, she enlisted the British Columbia Library Association, BC's library agency, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to sponsor an essay contest that asked: "Did you discover a book at one of our public libraries that changed the way you look at the world and your place in it? Did you meet someone significant? Did something amusing make your day? British Columbia's public libraries want to hear about how our libraries have made a difference in your life. What's your library story?"
The resulting stories -- some 350 of them -- are on the project's web site, Beyond Words: BC's Public Libraries Are Changing Lives <http://www.beyondwords.ca/Default.aspx>.
What we've discovered from the explosion of blogs and personal web sites, if we didn't know it before, is that everybody wants to be heard. Listening to their stories, making it possible for them to tell their stories, preserving their stories, fits perfectly with the public library's traditional mission of preserving the community's history. It's also an act of respect, a way of saying to each and every person in the community, "You matter."
Information is pretty easy to come by these days. Respect is not.
So, what do you think? Time to start soliciting those stories, folks?
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I remember the feeling of being in the library as a child. Belonging. Peace. Warmth. Inviting shades of rusty orange in the carpeting, in the fall leaves blanketing the ravine below the window. I remember the brightness of the morning sunlight and its heat coming through that window, washing over me like a warm bath. The window looked out from a cozy reading nook, which I felt was just for me. With its view from above, this hollowed out corner of the children’s section felt like an indoor tree house. I sat at the window, and I gazed out at a world that seemed separate from the cocoon of the library. I remember the feeling of being in the library, of being hypnotized, of being entranced, of being at home.
Actually, I wanted quite literally to make the library my home. I daydreamed about turning that nook into my bedroom. I imagined covering the area completely with pillows, the kind you put your head on. What perfect heaven it would be, I thought, to rest my entire body on pillow! How perfect it would be to wake up every morning to the brilliant sunshine that made me squint my eyes till the light became stars through my lashes, and I was drawn into quiet, inner, sparkling possibility.
Amanda McKinley. Beyond Words, http://www.beyondwords.ca/Default.aspx
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