Storytelling school

News desk | ILLINOIS

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Librarians need to be able to communicate about social justice issues, and teaching social justice storytelling to students in library science schools will help them develop the skills to do so, according to two researchers.

Kate McDowell, professor of information science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Nicole A. Cooke, former Illinois professor of information science who now teaches at the University of Carolina du Sud, analyzed how to teach these skills through a storytelling mission with their students.

“We both felt that our field should teach students to be advocates for diversity,” McDowell said. “We want our students to recognize injustices on the ground when they occur so they can advocate for student welfare.”

McDowell and Cooke taught the same task in four different courses in Illinois. They asked their students to explore a social injustice and create a video addressing the issue, using a variety of storytelling strategies to demonstrate its importance and suggest possible solutions. They analyzed the students’ work and the effectiveness of their approaches to “exposing injustice” and “calling the public” in a newspaper article for The Library Quarterly.

“The key to storytelling does more than other forms of communication is that it’s not just about serving the audience, you’re interacting with the audience,” McDowell said.

A particularly effective example of a “call to the audience” to encourage action, she said, was a student who told audience members to use their power over food choices and ” vote with our forks about three times a day” to choose food producers who promote a fairer food system.

McDowell and Cooke wrote about another student’s story focusing on the extremely high rates of suicide among transgender people and the importance of belonging and acceptance. “This story was directed at churches and church leaders, challenging them to take an inclusive stance: ‘Rejection literally kills trans people. But affirmation and acceptance literally save our lives. … So which side will your church choose?’ they wrote.

Public librarians have a responsibility to provide essential services to underserved populations, McDowell said. Communicating on social justice issues is “speaking about diversity and inclusion. Public libraries have the most benefit for the people who have the least,” she said.

Librarians can tell the stories of systemic barriers faced by potential patrons, such as lack of public transportation and lack of minority representation in library collections, McDowell and Cooke wrote.

“When communities have, for example, been neglected or marginalized and services for them have been unfunded or underfunded, social justice storytelling can be a first step to reversing these trends. …These stories help make the case for expanding services despite the pervasive social inequalities that make injustices invisible,” they wrote.

In addition to librarians advocating on behalf of their clients, storytelling skills are also useful for public and community college librarians whose libraries are funded by taxes and sustained budget cuts during the pandemic, McDowell said.

“They need to be advocates for their own salaries. One way to do this is to use data storytelling to tell how these institutions are helping real people find jobs every day. It really helps to have a story about the greater justice that these institutions provide to the people who benefit from them. There is not a person who does not want himself, his friends and his family to have a decent job. It’s a kind of social justice that’s very basic,” McDowell said.