A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Tell Me a Story

by Marcia Warner on April 30, 2013

Stories and their use in advocacy have been a mainstay in libraries for the last decade. Now, it seems, the business leadership and executive coaching folks have caught on to what we have been doing for years. Books, blogs, and journals are filled with possibilities of how to reach others through storytelling. And why not? The age-old tradition of educating through story has a proven track record from Aesop to Daniel Pink, Seth Godin, or a myriad of other storytellers.

One of the difficulties I find as a library director—a couple of steps removed from the frontlines—is missing the day-to-day stories that library staff members hear of our patrons’ experiences around our services. But just because I have to work a little harder to get the story doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile or important. For the Grand Rapids Public Library’s (GRPL) 2010 annual report,1 we stopped random users in all of our branches and asked them one question: “What would you recommend that we see/do/use at the library today?” Oh, did we get stories. Stories that were much more organic than those we might have heard by quizzing our favorite patrons. The best parts for me were the fresh perspectives and wide variety of viewpoints. For every one of the reasons I can think of to use the library, there are dozens more that I might not have ever heard before. Would I have thought that we had the last remaining public telephones downtown? Or that baby yoga would have increased attendance at storytimes by 75 percent? For the cost of a cup of coffee and a half hour of your time, a librarian can give you more stories than you can use in a month’s worth of interviews.

The story changes depending on what we want it to do. If we are advocating for funding with legislators who are not consistent users, we need to not only communicate who we are and build our brand, but also convey the value we provide their constituents. In this case we might talk about the person who uses library resources for job hunting or young families with limited resources borrowing early learning picture books. If that is too old school for you, perhaps the story frames not the service but the experience in your library—for example, the development of the Chicago Public Library’s (CPL) YOUmedia teen learning space. Through YOUmedia, teens are more than just consumers of digital media, they are also the creators. According to CPL, through the activities of making and doing, YOUmedia creates experiences that address two significant challenges facing public libraries today:

  1. The shortage of authentic, engaging physical and virtual spaces for teens in public libraries.
  2. A lack of meaningful opportunities for teens to learn digital media skills while also gaining relevant new entry points into library resources.

Can you imagine the stories that are coming out of that experience?

Stephen Denning, in his book The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, says “storytelling and leadership are both performance arts, and like all other performance arts, they involve at least as much doing as thinking.”2 I know there is a lot more to storytelling than meets the eye, but it’s time for some of us to just shed the self-consciousness for the good of the cause and tell the stories, not just be the keepers of them.

So let me finish by telling you a story or two . . .

The library needs to be a lot of things to a lot of people, but one of the many important things that our library does is further cultural literacy. GRPL’s Check It Out: Circulating Memberships program gives our patrons—many of whom do not utilize our local arts organizations—the opportunity to visit museums, zoos, botanical gardens, sporting events, and live performances for free. When we first started the program, a mother with a young son stopped by one of our branches and discovered that we had passes to the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum that she could check out with her library card. She explained to the librarian that her son’s birthday was the following week, and due to financial hardships, he had to choose between having a birthday party or getting a present, but that there wasn’t money for both. Her eyes glistened as she told the librarian that she could give the museum pass to her son as his present. When they stopped in to check out the pass, the little boy was so excited he was shaking. To this day I cannot tell this story without tearing up.

On a lighter note, my good friend and reference librarian extraordinaire, Bill Hill, recently retired after thirty-seven years at GRPL. I asked him what his most memorable reference transaction was, and he told me this story. One evening on the reference desk a call came in about 7:30 p.m. The woman on the phone said, “I am here with my son who is four years old. We are having a conversation about who is stronger, mommies or monsters. We called the library because we know that the librarians can find the answers to all of the questions.” Bill set down the phone, waited the appropriate amount of time, and picked up the phone again. He said, “I have looked in all of the most respected resources and the undisputed answer is mommies are definitely stronger than monsters.” They thanked him and hung up the phone.

The power of a library to impact lives is immeasurable. The power in telling a story, equally so. Each and every service or program we provide has innumerable compelling stories. We just have to tell them.


1. Grand Rapids Public Library, “Grand Rapids Public Library 2010 Annual Report,” accessed Aug. 12, 2011.
2. Stephen Denning, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 1.