How Libraries Changed Lives: Librarians Telling Stories
Librarians telling stories
I am often told mayors and city councils never come to the library and don’t know or appreciate what the library does. I have tried to encourage librarians to tell mayors and city councils what the library does. This often involved presenting circulation and programming attendance statistics to the mayor, city manager and city council.
Why CEOs and librarians should tell stories
Robert McKee is a world renown screenwriting coach who gives four day workshops on how to written award-winning movie and television scripts. In 2003, the Harvard Business Review asked McKee why CEOs of major companies should be telling stories. “[When] you build your case by giving statistics and facts and quotes from authorities, there are two problems…. While you’re trying to persuade them they are arguing with you in their heads. Second, if you do succeed in persuading them, you’ve done so only on an intellectual basis. That’s not good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone.
“The other way to persuade people – and ultimately a much more powerful way – is by uniting an idea with an emotion. The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story. In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you also arouse your listener’s emotions and energy.”
What makes a compelling story?
Again Robert McKee tells us. “It begins with a situation in which life is relatively in balance: You come to work day after day, week after week, and everything’s fine. You expect it will go on that way. But then there’s as event – in screenwriting, we call it the ‘inciting incident’ – that throws life out of balance. … The story goes on to describe how, in an effort to restore balance, the protagonist’s subjective expectations crash into an uncooperative objective reality.”
Libraries restore balance in people’s lives and communities.
I was surprised at how many of the following stories may be interpreted as restoring balance or creating balance where none existed before. May be the most inspirational library work is restoring balance in the lives of individuals and communities. Someone loses a job. Library staff help them apply for jobs online. A community loses its summer school or swimming pool. A library provides additional summer programming.
Two kinds of stories
The stories below are beginning-to-end tales. These tales have a happy ending. Such stories tell the town citizens and managers the library provides valuable services to the community. But Robert McKee claims stories with known happy endings are “boring and banal”. The interesting stories are the ones in which we are asking for something, e.g., money from the city council for a specific project.
Robert McKee gives the following advice for these stories. Harness a true explanation of the real problems to create the suspense of the outcome. Struggling against real problems makes you appear to be an exciting, dynamic person. Secondly, an honest explanation of problems makes the story sound true. Key questions for discovering stories. What would restore balance? What is keeping the librarian from restoring balance?
Libraries Changing Lives
One patron used the library’s computers to sell items on eBay until he got enough money to buy his own computer
- Carla Feigal, Jewell Public Library
We helped a man register with the workforce site, helped him with his resume, and helped him search for jobs. More than once. One day he came in to thank us because he had gotten the job we helped him apply for. That changed a life.
- Jackie Icenhower, Atlanta (Texas) Public Library
We're a small library in a small community, and just this week, I've helped three different women with online job applications - two women could not figure out how to upload a resume to an online application form (which was the only way they were allowed to apply), and one did not know how to create a resume in Microsoft Word. Because I was able to help them, they were able to apply for jobs - jobs they desperately need.
- Cari Cusick, Hesston (Kansas) Public Library
We had a grant to provide workforce computers in our small communities (connected to our state workforce/employment office). One of our librarians reported that a patron came in after losing her job. She was shown how to use the workforce computer and found a few jobs for which to apply. She came back a week later, saying that she had gotten one of the jobs. It paid more than where she had worked. The library director was pleased that the library had a role in changing her life for the better.
Letter to Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library
June 7, 2011
I want to express my great appreciation for the wonderful computer education program you offer. I took the course about 3 years ago when I was nearly totally computer illiterate. During the course I gained enough knowledge to eventually enroll in and complete online classes at Washburn University in medical coding and I now have a full time job at a hospital in Chicago doing electronic coding.
Had I not had the good fortune to take your course I probably would not be employed today, and certainly not in a job that requires any degree of computer skill.
Please continue to offer your classes so that others may hopeful have the same opportunities that opened up for me through your training.
A homeless man recently shared his story with us. He took all the free computer classes offered through the library and was able to get a job with a small company. They told him he knew his way around a computer the better than any of the other applicants. With his new job, he made enough money to buy a laptop computer and a truck, and to rent an apartment. He says all of this is because of the free services available through the library. He has written to the Mayor and City Council thanking them for supporting libraries.
- Rebecca, from BHAG Web site
One older female student could verbalize what she wanted to say for her assignments, but the writing never matched her words. The staff was instrumental in sitting with her and when they had her read aloud, she realized she was missing many words. Her writing has improved immensely since she learned to proof-read out loud.
- Rita Sevart, Wichita Area Technical College
A few years back a high school student came running into the library. This is a big guy, who played sports, etc. He … asked if I could help him. He had no one else to turn to, and if he did not turn this extra credit assignment in by the next morning he would not go on to the next grade level.
He needed to make a display on poster board and write a 500-word paper to go with it. He did not even know where to start. Thankfully, it was dinnertime and it was quiet in the library so I had time to devote to this young man.
We got on the computer. I showed him how to look up the information…. He printed out his materials, [wrote] his paper, and …typed it up. I helped with sentence structure, grammar, etc.
Now he needed [a] display on the poster board. I showed him how to make the labels on the computer. We printed out appropriate pictures [to] cut out and use. Then together we played with the layout to see what would have the most impact. Once he decided how he wanted it, we [glued] all the pieces in place. After 3 hours of work, he had a completed project and paper to turn in the next morning. He left the library with a big smile on his face.
The next day … he came running in, ran around the circ counter and picked me up and twirled me around. After putting me back on the ground he proceeded to tell me he had received an A for the assignment and would be moving on to his senior year with all of his friends. This is the first A he had ever received in high school.
He graduated the following year with his class by keeping his grades up and doing his assignments, and moved out of town soon after. He still will pop his head in to say hi when he is in town and to thank me again.
It is something that he will never forget and gave him the motivation to do better and to graduate with his friends.
- Nola M Ramirez, Gustine Branch Library, California
One story I have been sharing with the Arkansas City community is Donna’s story. She has given me permission to share it. Donna started with a Literacy Council tutor two or three years ago. When I first met her, she was very shy, barely spoke, and rarely smiled. Since working with her tutor, her reading skills have improved to the point where she has read everything in our collection about Native Americans, and we frequently request items via ILL in that area for her. In addition, she has almost become a different person. She is friendly and outgoing and smiles a lot!
I asked her about her transformation, and she said that before she worked with her tutor, she was afraid of being perceived as stupid. Now she feels she can carry on a conversation with others with much more self-confidence. She is currently researching how to start a landscaping business.
Donna will be the first to tell you that her life has changed because of the Arkansas City Public Library and the Literacy Council.
- Dalene, Arkansas City (Kansas) Library
Chandler (Arizona) Public Library had a literacy program which, among other things, served new immigrants / new English speakers …. [including] one family, who had recently immigrated from Viet Nam…. Every morning, the mother and preschool-aged daughter spent several hours in the children’s section of the library, Mom listening to language tapes and doing “homework” from her ESL class, and child playing games, listening to recorded books, attending story times, etc. After school, the family returned again, this time with Vincent, an older brother, who was in elementary school (primary grades). He worked in the homework assistance center improving language skills, using the computers, and getting help Mom really couldn’t provide at that point.
The mother worked her way thru the library’s ESL classes and with a tutor … provided by the library until she had earned her G.E.D. She then enrolled in the local community college and subsequently went on to get her B.A. from Arizona State University. The entire family continued to visit the library regularly, with the children participating in summer reading programs, teen programs, homework help, etc.
Approximately a year after I had retired from the library, … I had the pleasure of presenting Vincent with several academic awards, including a Regent’s scholarship to the University of Arizona. He had graduated in the top 1% of his high school class of over 600 students.
I have no doubt that the library’s services changed the lives of that family. As a staff member, I had helped to plan and implement those services and interacted on a daily basis with the family, encouraging them, helping them to find resources, celebrating victories, etc.
- Karen Drake, University of Arizona
I have a pretty steady stream of parents … seeking to do well by their young children. They love the resources I share with them about parenting, reading with your children, living in two language homes … and often come back to tell me what they now do differently (read more, feel comfortable with one parent speaking Spanish, the other English), etc.
A parent of a teen who participates … in the young adult programming told me how excited she was because her daughter is not only reading, she’s found like-minded people at the programs and exclaimed to her Mom that we “really got it” at the Library.
[A couple asked for help] for Dad [who] had to take the driver’s test and was despairing of passing. Another video program to the rescue, according to the son, who said the Dad loved it and passed with flying colors.
The Library’s joint program with our County Juvenile Hall and the “Foster Grandparents” program led to a collection of materials we lend out through the Grandparents to the residents of the Hall. They are not only reading, the number of fights and other problems over the weekends has been reduced.
- Connie Barrington, Imperial County (California) Free Library
The Johnson County Library provides services to the incarcerated within Johnson County. Here are quotes about this program.
· "The program compelled me to look at myself and evaluate what caused me to be in the situation I'm in."
· "The class helped fill the time that drugs and alcohol used to. It caused me to look at the world around me instead of only my life and problems."
· "Discussing the book with a judge and probation officer made me look at them in a different perspective.... I look at this particular judicial system a little differently now."
· "The book gave me the confidence to leave a bad situation with my boyfriend."
· "Reading keeps your mind active, refreshed."
· "This group has me interested in expanding my reading interests."
· "My Dad liked it....he thought it really helped me."
- Terry Velasquez, Johnson County Library
Cody read his first book while staying at my youth detention center. Like most of our residents, he'd missed enough school over the years that reading was neither fun nor easy. By the time he left, Cody was finishing whole books in a week, a feat we were both proud of. Like too many of my kids, Cody came back a few weeks later. The first thing he did was come tell me he'd visited his public library 'on the outs' and to share all the books he'd read.
- Mel Jensen, from BHAG Web site
I had some young boys coming into the library to play video games after school. They asked me if I could get more Star Wars games and I asked them if they had seen the Star Wars graphic novels. They checked out an armload. They came back a week later asking if I could get more of the Star Wars graphic novels and I said have you seen the books. I took them to the science fiction section. The ten year old looked at the pages and assured his younger brother they could read them. Their mom came in later and said the older brother was reading the books to the younger brother, and it was the first time she had ever seen them turn off the TV and read.
- Kieran, from BHAG Web site
I don't really have the nostalgic view of libraries that everyone else seems to wax poetic on. Instead, my first and most transformative experience with libraries was slightly more risque. I grew up in a rural Texas town that didn't have sex education or Planned Parenthood. So, with a decidedly overworked mom who didn't take the time to have the birds and the bees talk and definite daddy issues due to my absentee father, in my early teen years I was brimming with uncontrolled hormones, unexpressed emotions, and a variety of questions. I was allowed to study at the library rather than staying home, since I could ride my bike safely there. It was there I discovered a seeming plethora of answers to my burning questions - in the romance section.
I devoured loads of bodice rippers. I also discovered an outlet for my teenage sexual questions without the messy and dangerous method that most of my friends were employing - vast quantities of unprotected sex. While romance was ripe with sexual satisfaction, it also created in me a respect for strong women who demanded their men also be strong and selfless. The heroes in these novels treated their women not as sexual objects, but as people worthy of love. This created in me the desire to inspire such emotions in a man rather than settling for the lesser momentary gratification and later mortification of an active sex life. I am eternally grateful to my library for housing the books that saved me from the fate of so many of my high school friends. I developed a taste for all kinds of literature (although I am still loyal to the romance genre in particular). I met the man of my dreams and found the career of my dreams. I hope everyday to introduce patrons to literature that speaks to them. Whatever genre they choose, I am sure that my library holds the resources to turn all people toward a brighter future.
- Jessica from BHAG Web site
One of the finest examples of libraries connecting with community and making a difference in the quality of life is the Homebound Program that Garfield County Library has begun in conjunction with Meals on Wheels. As I began going to peoples homes to interview them for this program, I realized I was doing this with a great deal of trepidation, as the preliminary phone interviews were less than excited. But, as I chose books, filled bags, sent them off with the enthusiasm of a college mom and her care package, I realized I was possibly opening doors to life that may have been closed or possibly forgotten.
Soon, the phone began to ring and I heard such joy in the voices of the patrons who began to make special requests and just call to say "thank you." I had sent a James Herriott book to a lady who had requested books about animals. She called with excitement to say thank you. I could hear her smile. She had never experienced James Herriott and wanted more "please." Another patron is a former librarian who has called to tell us what a valuable service this is and how we are expanding the lives of all who are receiving this service.
This has been not only a life changing experience for our homebound patrons, but has been a source of fulfillment for all those involved in bringing these books to them.
- Sunny, from BHAG Web site
Libraries building communities
Community display area
Each year, the second grade teacher at Washington School in Ellis, has students build a community from various items such as wood blocks, Legos, shoeboxes even aluminum foil. (Many are businesses. Some actual businesses in town. Others are businesses in their imagination. – Chris) Once completed, the class brings their miniature communities to Ellis Public Library where they are placed on display for two weeks for each class.
There are several cool aspects to this. One, how these kids view their world. Secondly, the amount of thought that has gone into each model and in some cases the amount of detail. Perhaps the most gratifying for the kids, is the entire public is able to see their work. For me, I get a kick out of watching the kids drag their parents and grandparents to the library so they can see them on display as well. The windfall for Ellis Public Library is that often, the parent or grandparent has not been in the library for years, it becomes a moment of rediscovery and more often than not, they will come back.
- Steve Arthur, Library Director, Ellis (Kansas) Public Library
Plugging holes in community services
Independence, Kansas has a population 9,400. In the Spring of 2010, the school district announced that budget cuts forced the school district to cancel summer school. Marissa Fritzemeier developed an 8-week hands-on learning for grades 3 through 5. This learning includes reading, art, theater, science and history were from 10 am to noon, Tuesday through Friday, June 1st through July 23rd. Library staff asked for volunteers through the newspaper and in presentations at local civic groups. Volunteers included teens, numerous adults and even part0time library staff. Sonic Drive-in provided 8-week supply of bottled water. Volunteers also provided a nutritional snack for the kids before they left each day. The kids were very excited about the program and could not wait for the next day’s program.
During these eight weeks, 725 kids participated.
- From the winning application for the 2010 PLA/EBSCO Best Small Library Award
Chanute's swimming pool was a WPA project. City officials knew the pool would have to be replaced, but they hoped the pool would last another 3 years, giving time for planning and constructing a new facility. Unfortunately, record flooding destroyed the pool, eliminating time for planning and building a new pool. Of course, flooding happens in the spring. There was no advance warning a pool would not be available that summer.
Building the new pool was delayed to take advantage of combining the new high school, its gym, etc. and the new pool into a nice recreational facility for the city. Demolishing old facilities and building new facilities was going to take three years.
In a fairly short time, we created a number of low cost programs to help fill the summer. We asked and were granted a small amount of extra money from the City to help pay for additional staff. We provided 2 to 3 programs each weekday for the summer months. It was such a success, we simply budgeted for this the next 2 summers.
I must admit the library's plans were not totally selfless. We knew we would see a number of kids who normally spent there summer at the pool and we would now be expected to "babysit" them. However, we also knew it would be an ideal time to entice non-readers to the library, create community good will and fill a void left by the loss of the pool. The new pool has now been open 2 summers and we have cut back on our programming. However, circulation continues to increase and our program attendance is excellent. In addition, the City allowed the library to use the aquatic center for free parties for those completing the summer reading program.
- Susan Willis, Library Director, Chanute (Kansas) Public Library
Welcoming new people
I made a difference in someone’s life yesterday! Logan schools teach Spanish. We get teachers from Spain. Yesterday a lady dressed a little differently than the norm comes in to my library and starts asking about our local phone company building. I had to listen real careful to her words because of the very heavy accent.
I finally asked her if she was our new Spanish teacher and she seemed relieved to know I had caught on. After helping her use my phone to call about getting a phone hooked up, I took her to our CKLS rotating Spanish Books. We have a nice collection of kids books and some of them she got real excited about! (TEO books, if that means anything to you) Anyway, she is going to use them during some classes with the younger students. She ended up checking out the one about families to use first. She came back a short time later and started writing down the names of some of the Spanish books. I made her feel welcome. Her happiness and excitement was very apparent. I know that I made a difference. Thank you Gail for getting those books to me!
- Norma Mullen, Library Director, Logan Library
We first moved to our small town a year and a half ago and we did not know anybody. I am a stay-at-home mom of two small children and I wanted to meet other moms and make some friends but I had no idea how to go about that. We moved in the late fall and it was too cold to meet people at a playground.
I decided to go to the library and see if they had a children's reading hour. I found out the time and started to attend. It was nice because it was the one day a week I could count on a little social interaction for both my children and myself. The librarian would read a few books and then the kids would do a fun craft.
After a few weeks of attending we started to get to know the other mothers and children that attended and they invited us to a playgroup as well. Now we had two days a week to look forward to!
Most of our friends up here have come from either the library reading hour or from the playgroup we found because of it. We still go to reading hour every week and my children love the stories and crafts. I am so glad I went to the library to inquire because it helped so much in allowing us to find a place in our community.
Agent of homogenization to create social harmony
In Main Street Public Library, library historian Wayne A. Wiegard studied the growth of four rural public libraries in Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin. Protestant, New Englanders started these libraries based on the idea that good reading (i.e., approved fiction) leads to good social behavior. Their books did not present a variety of political and social viewpoints. Instead, these collections “largely reinforced the dominant myths of American exceptionalism, egalitarianism and consensus.” The purpose was to reinforce and teach good middle class values and ethics, e.g., hard work.
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