Hi, Pete Bromberg of Library Garden here, honored and pleased as punch to be guest-posting for Michael on TTW.
A few days ago the New York Times published a fascinating piece on the importance of telling our stories. Researchers have long known, and any parent or teacher will quickly confirm, that our brains are wired for storytelling, and we are much more likely to remember facts if they are presented in story, rather than given to us as a string or list of items.
The Times article focuses on a growing body of research that suggests that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves not only reveal who we are, but help shape and influence future behaviors and decisions. As Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern and author of the 2006 book, The Redemptive Self put it, “[W]e find that these narratives guide behavior in every moment, and frame not only how we see the past but how we see ourselves in the future.”
To simplify a bit: Research has found that individuals with “mood problems” may have happy memories, but these memories tend to marred by some darkness. Their personal narratives and anecdotes, however happy, tend to end with a note of disappointment. Conversely, individuals who are happier, more energetic, and more involved tend to see their stories ending positively. They do not deny the negative elements of their stories, they simply begin with the negative and end with the positive, thereby creating a redemptive narrative, framing the negative events in their life as obstacles that they overcame. They tell stories of victory.
Again, this is important because the research shows that how we tell our stories actually influences our future decisions. Dr McAdams reports that, “We find…when it comes to the big choices people make — should I marry this person? should I take this job? should I move across the country? — they draw on these stories implicitly, whether they know they are working from them or not,” (emphasis is mine)
Which all leads me to wonder whether these principles hold true for organizations, or even professions, as well as for individuals. And if these principles are transferable to organizations and professions — which I think they are to some extent — then what does this mean for libraries? What does it mean for librarianship? What are our stories, organizationally and professionally?
Of course, I’m oversimplifying the issue, but I think it’s useful in this case to think about the stories that we tell about our libraries, and the stories that we hear others in the profession tell. At the Mid-Atlantic Library Futures conference I recently attended I heard the most interesting mix of hope, despair, wild-eyed optimism, and doom. I heard other librarians talking about how vital and necessary we are to our customers and communities, and I heard stories about our increasing irrelevance. I also heard stories about how bad we are at telling our stories!
What’s this all mean? Dunno. Personally, I’ve tended to look at the setbacks in my own life as, “Well that’s the end of chapter 1 but I can’t wait to see what happens in chapter 2.” This has served me well. If this gets posted before the weekend, I ask everyone to take a few moments between bites of burgers and notdogs to think about YOUR stories; the ones you’ve heard and the ones you tell.
Was that funding cut (1) the end of the book, or (2) the exciting cliff-hanger that lead to chapter two, “How we marshaled the support of the community and increased our funding…”?
Is the Internet (1) the death of reference librarianship, or (2) the tool we’re using to re-establish ourselves as information experts and reconnect with our customers?
Has Borders (1) stolen our business with their fancy displays, pleasant reading nooks, caffeinated drinks, and children’s storytimes, or (2) re-energized us with new ideas on how to create welcoming spaces, merchandise our collection, and do a better job of putting books, cds and dvds in the hands of our customers?
If you answered (1) instead of (2) to these questions, remember: How we tell these stories not only reveals our perceptions, but may also influence our future decisions, and contribute (or detract) from the health of libraries, and our relevance in the lives of our customers.