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Stories live in libraries, but how to share them?

A lot has happened in my first month as a Google Policy Fellow at the American Library Association (ALA), where today I am formally launching a digital storytelling project called Living Stories, Living Libraries. The blog relies on photo documentary-style submissions to capture the diverse stories of people using libraries. It gives individuals a place to share how libraries have impacted their lives, hear from others, connect ideas, and provides a space for you to tell your own story.

Social media, and the ubiquity of mobile internet access and mobile photography allows for the unprecedented ease of online storytelling. At present, library information shared through social media is largely conducted in editorial format. Living Stories, Living Libraries is based on the belief that libraries could benefit in advocacy and visibility-raising through the more personal approach of letting individual librarians and users document and promote their unique experiences with the library. Currently, the twitter handle #futureoflibraries allows library patrons and librarians to tweet what they would like to see in libraries of the future. One telling example includes “Libraries could be doing more to tell the story of how much they’ve changed- eg. adapting to the digital ecology.”

And I learned two important things: libraries are unsung liberators, and everyone in a library has a story.

As institutions, libraries are increasingly going beyond providing information and knowledge, and are actually producing information and enabling creation. The new role of the library is becoming ever more important as we shift to a knowledge-based economy that relies on digital skills and innovation. Libraries are changing in many future-forward ways, from providing 3-D printing and teaching coding to acting as publishers, but unfortunately research shows the majority of people are only aware of a small portion of the resources libraries offer. Libraries represent public innovation spaces that fill vital needs in access to opportunities, skills, knowledge, and creative space. But what is the best way to show their growing value?

The idea for this project began to take shape a year ago when I became increasingly frustrated in my international affairs studies with the existing narratives and problematic approaches to international development. I took refuge in the library, which seemed to me the only truly humanitarian institution that helps all people, without any ulterior motive, and I started looking at libraries as drivers of community development. At this point, a bout of madness overtook me and I decided to write a thesis around the topic. I traveled across rural Romania on a grant, interviewing librarians and patrons about how Internet access through the library impacted their communities. And I learned two important things: libraries are unsung liberators, and everyone in a library has a story.

I realized that the library has an underused opportunity to further connect, share, and create a wider community freely and simply through social media.

I wanted to find a way to collect the stories people told me about how the library has made differences great and small in their lives. More than that, I wanted to share them in an accessible, human way, because the stories themselves reflected a stunning humanity. Across diverse cultures and communities, libraries fill needs as unique as the people who use them. From a grandmother who spoke to her American-born grandson for the first time on Skype at the library, to a woman who turned to the library to understand cancer treatments when a family member was diagnosed, stories reflected the multitudinous and vital needs for quality access to information and technology.

Since my undergraduate thesis is not about to make the New York Times bestsellers list, the chances of someone finding these stories are unfortunately pretty slim. Instead, I decided to create a blog site in collaboration with ALA where library users and librarians can openly post their own unique stories. While conducting research, I realized that the library has an underused opportunity to further connect, share, and create a wider community freely and simply through social media. The goals of this blog are to:

  1. Interact: Use the social media format to build trust and mirror the personal interaction we value in libraries-real people telling real stories
  2. Show: Promote the image of libraries as vibrant community centers that fill a variety of roles
  3. Share: Allow librarians to get ideas from this blog, to see what other libraries are offering, and to share their own successes using the #librariesinthewild tag
  4. Advocate: to share stories with policymakers for library advocacy at both the local and national level
  5. Grow: to create new library users by reaching people on social media and showing powerful, short, easy to consume human stories of impact

More than anything else, stories about other people and their lives capture our attention–the success and popularity of social media in starting movements and developing identities makes that clear. This blog is designed to capture meaningful stories and gives voice to all those who have been impacted by the library. It also presents a space to illustrate all of the innovative new roles libraries fill. The project is licensed under Creative Commons, and I encourage anyone to share and adapt its content for any non-commercial advocacy and awareness-raising purposes. My hope is that Living Stories, Living Libraries will provide a useful tool to create an online community and to keep libraries as prominent providers of free and equal access to information and new digital opportunities.

I invite you now to follow the blog, to share the project widely with colleagues and friends, and tell your own story. Please feel free to reach out to me if you or your library would like to be involved, mkavaras [at] alawash [dot] org.

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Margaret Kavaras

Margaret Kavaras served as the 2014 Google Policy Fellow in the Washington Office.

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