How to tell library stories



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How to tell library stories

By Chris Rippel, Central Kansas Library System, Great Bend, Kansas

This article discusses how to tell two kinds of stories. "Beginning-to-end" stories start with descriptions of people, families and communities and the problem that brings them to the library for help. Describing the library’s success in providing help local libraries change lives and build communities. This creates long-term, library support. “Telling stories without endings” are told to obtain donations for specific big projects. Describing the struggles in overcoming a series of challenges builds drama and concern for success. Donors are asked to help bring this heroic struggle to a happy conclusion.

Jamie LaRue, Director of the Douglas County (Colorado), has a BHAG (pronounced bee-hag). BHAG is an acronym for "Big, Hairy Audacious Goal", a concept developed by James Collins and Jerry Porras in their 1994 book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.

Jamie LaRue's BHAG is to secure long-term community support that would reliably vote for funding future library buildings, services, etc. LaRue proposes using volunteers with well-developed public speaking skills to tell community groups the following claims. 


  • Libraries change lives.

  • Libraries build communities.

  • Libraries mean business. 

  • Libraries are a smart investment.

Jamie gives his volunteers a twenty-minute script. (Written version at http://bit.ly/sArVgU Video demonstration at http://bit.ly/swDlc2) This script contains some facts, e.g., financial support for the library costs about $1 per person per year. The primary method for communicating the above claims is compelling and inspiring stories.

When I heard these stories, I wanted more. I asked subscribers to Kansas’ librarian’s mailing list, Publib-L and CKLS members for their library stories about changing lives and building communities. I pulled additional stories from Jamie's BHAG Web site (http://bit.ly/o2XVGe), North Carolina Library Advocacy Web site (http://bit.ly/t7Q0KZ). My collection of stories is at http://bit.ly/rYiUAW. I recommend printing these stories now so you may read them when I discuss them below.

Fourteen (52%) of the 27 stories are related to reading. Eight (30%) involve computers. Stories #8 and #9 seem especially inspirational because librarians helped students earn their first A’s. These two stories also disturb me. In story #8, the librarian provided the extensive help because no one else happened to be in the library that evening. In #9, library policy prevented a seven-year-old boy from using a computer without a parent, but library staff waived the rule in this instance. I believe our library stories ought to brag about "changing lives" and "building community" under normal conditions and following library policy. If your library's best story could not have occurred under normal conditions and following library policy, then please consider changes so these stories can happen more often.

Jamie asks us to replace his stories with stories from our own libraries. His stories are compelling, partly because they are well told. My quest to learn how to tell good library led me to the advice of Robert McKee.

Robert McKee literally wrote "the book" about writing screenplays, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and Principles of Screenwriting. McKee gives four-day seminars all over the world (http://bit.ly/94XFHQ). By 2003, attendees had won 109 Emmys, twenty Writers Guild and sixteen Director Guild Awards. His irascible and profane lectures are portrayed in the movie "Adaptation" (http://bit.ly/ocep9). A Google search for "Robert McKee" retrieves dozens of interviews and articles promoting his advice. One interview called "Storytelling that moves people" in the Harvard Business Review, June 2003 (http://bit.ly/sTLcQ4) and McKee’s book are the main resources for the following summary of his teachings.

McKee's book and seminars are for writers of screenplays. Since these screenplays are fictional, screenwriters are free to apply any and all of McKee's advice to their writing. Since librarians describe events that actually took place, chronology of events, other facts, and patron privacy will restrict librarians' ability and willingness to apply all of McKee's suggestions to their stories. Librarians must judge which suggestions are useful for improving each specific library story.

Most McKee interviews begin with the following questions. Why tell stories? What is a story?

Why tell stories?

McKee tells Harvard Business Review readers that presentations with bullet-lists, descriptions of experience, statistics, and quotes from authorities are less effective than stories for two reasons. First, listeners use their own experiences, statistics and quotes to argue, silently in their own minds, against the presenter's case. Second, even when listeners agree with presenters, rational arguments appeal only to the intellect. Stories motivate action by exciting listeners’ intellect and emotions.

Dr. Norman Holland explains that narratives outflank people's skepticism because "people believe stories momentarily, even when the stories cast doubts on something they know perfectly well is true." Furthermore, our minds are neurologically organized to remember narratives more easily than statistics and bullet-lists. (http://bit.ly/cIoXhP)

What is a story?

McKee claims stories begin with life in balance, everything seems just fine and then ... an "inciting incident" creates an imbalance. Protagonist(s) struggle(s) to restore balance. When balance is restored, the story is over. The audience goes home.

In screenplays and novels, restoring balance is delayed through a progression toward crisis and climax. Library stories often begin with initial imbalances, but library help usually restores balance fairly quickly.


  • Someone loses a job. The person goes to the library. Library staff helps them write a resume, fill out an online employment application, or teaches computer classes to develop new skills for better job. The patron gets the job. Balance is restored.

  • A community loses its swimming pool and kids have nothing to do during the summer or the school district can’t afford summer school and kids won’t get the educational experiences they need. Community balance is restored when the library offers additional library programming.

In these stories, library and staff are not the main characters. Library stories are about a person, family or a community experiencing an inciting incident and suffering the resulting imbalance. They react by going to the library, where supporting characters restore balance.

Therefore, library stories should begin with a description of the person, family or community, followed by a clear explanation of the meaning of the inciting incident for the person, family or community. Then the library should enter the story. This format produces more compelling stories than starting with, “I was reshelving books one day when Johnny came in.”

Amount of imbalance = Significance of the library's help

McKee advises that inciting incidents should be introduced within the first 25% of the story, e.g., within the first 30 minutes of a two-hour movie. In movies, inciting incidents often occur within the first couple of minutes, when meaning of inciting incidents is clear. Inciting incidents are delayed when audiences need more information to fully grasp its meaning. In "Rocky", for example, the first 30 minutes introduces Sylvester Stallone's character as a small-time club fighter, an unlikely boxing champion. When, 32 minutes into movie, Rocky is offered the championship fight the audience now understands the size of its challenge and opportunity. Audience understanding intensifies its impact on their emotions.

The first story in Jamie’s script opens with the inciting incident, "When Caiden was three years old, he started to stutter." The story spends another 114 words (34% of the story) detailing Caiden's problem. The worst detail is his father's teasing, “Say your name again C-C-C-C-aiden!” After 124 words, Caiden finally visits Douglas County Libraries and meets Max, the library's greyhound. Learning the details of Caiden's problem increases our perception of the amount of change the library had on Caiden's life.

Inciting incidences happen outside the library and before people come to the library. Acquiring details for explaining the meaning of an inciting incidence requires an interview asking about the imbalance caused by the inciting incident, why people turned to the library for help, and how the library helped. Since interviews take time, interviews should only be conducted when details will likely reveal emotional situations. Collecting personal details and sharing them conflicts with library values about protecting patron privacy. We know from the collection of library stories that many patrons will share their stories to help the library. During the interview, librarians need to obtain permission to use patrons' stories and agree on what details will and will not be shared. 

"Display the struggle between expectation and reality"

McKee encourages us "to display the struggle between expectation and reality…” because “the gap that splits open between what a human being expects to happen when he takes an action and what really does happen ...." is the “substance of story” and the “source of energy of story”. The gap is the source and energy of story because when reality doesn't meet expectations, people must decide how to re-act. Their re-actions reveal their character and move the story forward in a particular direction.

I will demonstrate this by retyping story #9 below. I will make two changes. First, I will move sentences describing Kevin and the inciting incident, i.e., assignment to type his first paper, to the beginning where they belong. Second, (in colored parentheses), I will explain the struggle between expectations and reality. Well-written stories do not explicitly explain this struggle as I will do. Instead, the struggle is implied through action and dialogue.

"Story #9: Even though this happened over 10 years ago it is still very fresh in my mind. Kevin is a 7-year-old student. Kevin had a report to complete that his teacher said had to be typed and he did not have a computer at home. Kevin walked from his apartment to the main library on a Sunday afternoon. (Kevin expected to use a library computer to type his school paper. In the original story, the sentence explaining Kevin's need to type a school paper is five sentences further along in the story. Moving this sentence to the beginning implies Kevin's expectation when walking to the library and, to some degree, even builds some expectation in us.)

"When Kevin found he could not use the computer without his parent present, he was upset.

(Since we know why Kevin expected to use a library computer, when we learn Kevin can't get a computer, we immediately understand the reason he is upset.

Now Kevin must make a decision about what to do: cry, have a temper tantrum, argue, beg on bended knee, walk away and sulk, run to get a parent, etc. The story does not reveal Kevin’s specific action. This is too bad. Kevin's re-action would have revealed his character; determined whether or not we liked him and whether or not we sympathized. We do know Kevin acted upset and did not walk away or run get a parent. This moved the story in a particular direction.

After denying Kevin access to a computer, library staff probably expected Kevin to either walk away or get a parent. When Kevin acted upset and did not leave, library staff had to make a decision: either stick with library policy or waive the rules and let Kevin use a computer. Sticking with library policy would reveal one type of staff character and move the story in one direction. Waiving the rules would reveal a different type of staff character and move the story in another direction. What did the staff decide?)

"Thank goodness we can be flexible. The rules were waived and we set him up at a computer station. He worked diligently for about an hour typing his one-page report. He was so thrilled to have access to the computer and excited about typing his first report. (An interview of Kevin may have revealed that he had looked forward to using a computer for the first time. Adding this detail to the first paragraph would have deepened the meaning of the inciting incident and our understanding of Kevin’s upset.)

"He came back the next week to find me and beaming from ear to ear showed me his report - he received his first A ever!" - Durham County Library, North Carolina.

Reality did not meet expectations in two places. McKee would claim that had reality met expectations at either point, the story should have been over or, at least, the drama was over. Even if Kevin typed his paper and gotten his first A, the story is already over because Kevin's achievement would have been recorded as a fact, "Our library let a 7-year-old boy use a library computer to type a school paper. He received his first A ever!", but not written as an interesting story.

Is this advice good?

Thus far, McKee and I have given two pieces of advice: explain the meaning of the inciting incident and display the struggle between expectation and reality. Many library stories lack these features. So are these features really necessary? Since story #8 seems one of the better stories, let's decide whether details about the inciting incident and struggle between expectation vs. reality are essential. 

The inciting incident is the assignment of creating a poster and writing an accompanying 500-word paper for a student to move to the next level the following year. The desperate student goes to the library expecting help. Since the library is not busy that evening, the librarian decides to meet his expectation. However, the story doesn't end. The rest of the story is a detailed account of the librarian teaching the student how to make a poster and write a paper. The result is his first A and moving to the next grade.

Now let’s analyze the story.


  • Are details about the inciting incident essential? Teaching the student how to make a poster and write a paper is impressive, but doesn’t clearly prove the librarian actually changed the student’s life. Knowing that the poster and paper is required for the student to move to the next grade is the evidence needed for proving this claim. Without this detail, the librarian’s help is little more than a hash mark recording another person served.

  • Is displaying the reality of unmet expectations essential? Neither the student nor the librarian faced unmet expectations. The librarian, in fact, exceeds our expectations and probably the student's. The sheer amount of her work demonstrates the librarian’s character and dedication. Her work is a substitute for making difficult decisions because of unmet expectations.

Therefore, good stories proving libraries change lives do require details revealing the meaning to patrons of the inciting incident. Compelling, inspiring stories show the character and dedication of the librarian and staff. This can be done two ways: describing an outstanding example of the library’s help or showing librarian and staff making difficult decisions resulting from unmet expectations.

Telling stories without endings

McKee calls the stories in Jamie’s script "beginning-to-end tales", i.e., stories complete from the inciting incident through resolution. McKee's interview advises CEOs how to tell stories when asking Wall Street investors to fund the development of new products or bring new products to market. These stories have beginnings, but have no endings, yet. Worse, the past probably has failures and embarrassing incidents. Even worse, the best future path may appear so rocky that success is in doubt. Librarians and library boards may face similar situations when asking potential donors to fund a new buildings or additions. What advice does McKee give for telling stories under these conditions?

McKee claims "most companies and executives sweep dirty laundry, the difficulties, the antagonists, and the struggle under the rug. They prefer to present a rosy - and boring - picture of the world."  Rosy depictions, however, sound like propaganda, not truth. People appreciate being told the truth. Describing the real struggle make CEOs appear more exciting and dynamic.

McKee recommends telling stories about overcoming a series of antagonists. McKee's example story has the following antagonists: nature (causing heart attacks) is overcome by the company developing a new drug that could save a quarter of a million lives a year; the FDA turns down the company's first application for approval, a key partner starts a rival company, but is defeated in the race to patent the drug, and now the company needs additional investment to bring the drug to market. When the CEO reaches this point, potential investors are caught up in the drama and on the edge of their seats. The CEO ends the story saying, "We developed the drug, we got FDA approval, we won the patent race, but now we need additional money to bring this drug to market and save a quarter of a million lives a year."

Imagine a librarian and library board deciding the library needs more space. Their first expectation is an addition on the current library would be cheaper than building a new building. In one real case, a consultant recommended building a Butler building for more useable space at less cost than building an addition on the old Carnegie Library. Though this cost-benefit analysis was probably true, but the board loved their old library. They decided to build the addition anyway.

Like CEOs, the library board would possibly attempt to hide the availability of a cheaper alternative. McKee would recommend making their decision part of their heroic story. Since library boards should not portray other members of their community as antagonists, the library story would portray facing and meeting a series of challenges, not antagonists. The library’s story about their decision might sound something like this. “We were told that building a Butler building would be cheaper than building an addition on our Carnegie Library. But our library symbolizes our town’s cultural heritage. We chose to expand our historical heritage, not abandon it. Please help us expand our heritage.” Telling a story as a struggle implies that potential donors are being asked to help bring this heroic struggle to a happy conclusion.

Recap


This article discussed two kinds of stories.

"Beginning-to-end" stories are used to build long-term library support by persuading the community that their local library changes lives and builds community. These stories start with a description of people, families and communities and the problem that brought them to the library for help.

“Telling stories without endings” are told when librarians and library boards are asking for donations for a specific project. In these stories, the library, library staff, and library board are the main characters. The drama of these stories is created through a heroic struggle meeting a series of challenges along the path toward completing the project. Potential donors are asked to participate in the heroic stories, i.e., help create happy endings through their donations.

When appropriate and possible both types of stories place problems in the foreground and show how these problems are overcome. This is done to:



  • make stories more convincing, more honest than a rosy description of the situation;

  • make stories more interesting by engaging people's emotions and empathy;

  • demonstrate the good character, competence and commitment of library staff and the board.






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