Story Swap

“If a picture is worth a thousand words,
then a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures.”
-George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By

In this collaborative post from our ACRLog team, we’re sharing some of the “stories”–allegories, analogies, anecdotes, images, memes, metaphors, and more–that we use across the domains of our work to make abstract concepts more concrete, prompt meaning making, demonstrate relevance, communicate impact, bring a dry concept to life, or simply connect with our colleagues, users, and stakeholders.

What stories do you use (or have you heard) to help illustrate concepts related to information literacy and research skills?

[Jen] I’ve recently become very interested in using stories as a pedagogical technique. I don’t have a large repository of stories to call on yet, but a few examples I’ve been using to good effect come to mind:

  • Source integration – Images of a container ship and a cargo train help me illustrate the goal of synthesizing sources in a literature review versus stringing them together one-by-one. I start with the train photo and ask students to imagine that each container on the train is a source. I describe how the train illustrates a style of writing where the author treats each source individually–the author might summarize, analyze, or otherwise comment on each source one by one in a long string of paragraphs. By contrast, I note that the ship is full of the same containers (i.e., sources) as the train but draw students’ attention to how the containers are instead stacked in groups, that each column is made up of many containers. In this image, I suggest that each container still represents a source but a paragraph is this time represented by a column of containers illustrating the goal of weaving sources together for more skillful analysis and writing around themes across sources.
  • Source evaluation – Wineburg and McGrew’s study serves as an anecdote regarding approaches to source evaluation (as well as the idea of relative, or domain, expertise on occasion). The researchers observed 45 people evaluating websites: historians with PhDs, Stanford University undergraduates, and professional fact checkers. When I ask students to guess which group was best at evaluating information, they typically vote for the historians with PhDs. Yet findings showed that the “fact checkers arrived at more warranted conclusions in a fraction of the time.” A primary difference in their approach? Fact checkers read laterally, not vertically. Because lateral reading is a departure from the kinds of information evaluation that are commonly taught to high school students, this story helps illustrate the effectiveness of an unfamiliar approach.  

I’m motivated to use stories more (and to better effect) in my classes because I think it can be so powerful; the sense of clarity and connection these stories can offer for students is incredibly productive and gratifying.

[Alex] I have referred to truncation as “my favorite library magic trick” when demonstrating searches in databases, and it’s true! It’s such a simple thing to do but can really change the list of results you get back. I also refer to it as advanced… I don’t normally go into the details of truncation until the learners I’m addressing have mastered some of the other concepts like Boolean operators and selecting keywords. But when I do introduce truncation, I love to tell this story. I was working with someone who needed information on radiation and adjuvant chemotherapy. Looking at my list of search terms, I saw radiation, radiotherapy, radiation therapy, etc… so I thought, truncation time! Radi*, easy. Because of the complexity of the rest of the search, there were about two pages of results so I looked through all of them and behold, one of them was about… radishes. You can’t anticipate every possibility when you truncate, but that one was a real surprise. Truncate responsibly, everyone!

[Justin] I like to use the metaphor of gardening for the research process:  

  • Prep your garden: determine a topic and a focused research statement or question, along with background research.  
  • Care for your garden as it grows: identify keywords, makes a list of databases and sites to find information, create search strings, and save sources.  
  • Inspect your produce: evaluate your sources for relevance and credibility.
  • Cook! Use your sources in your writing to make something new.
  • Modify your approach if nothing is growing.

What stories do you use (or have you heard) to help illustrate concepts related to teaching and learning more broadly?

[Alex] This is so common it hardly feels like a story or metaphor but teachers as coaches is such a great framework. I can run you through practicing a skill, I can tell you the plays, but I can’t make the shot for you from the sidelines. You have to be able to apply what we did in practice while you’re on the court.

I’ve also used my experience as a DM for Dungeons & Dragons to explain outlining activities and learning objectives for a class. (Not to students, to other educators.) If you tell your players “you’re going to go here and do this, then go here and do this, ad nauseum” that’s called railroading and it isn’t as much fun as letting the players make decisions for themselves. Giving them multiple threads to follow and seeing what they value and decide to do is part of the game! Same goes for the classroom: here are all the objectives we need to meet, but you can help me decide which one we’re going to address next, and exactly how that’s going to look.

[Justin] I’ve used the example of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey”. One of my favourite ways to illustrate the hero’s journey is using Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. I find it relates to learning quite well: there’s a problem, you set out on your journey with help from mentors, there’s transformation and atonement (and learning a lesson?!) and finally return. 

[Jen] I’ve gotten a lot of mileage over the past few years out of an anecdote I’ve drawn from Carrie Brownstein’s memoir in which she reflected on some of the key experiences of her adolescence that helped shape her as a musician. In short, Brownstein first described how enthralled she felt watching pop music giants perform in stadium-sized venues. The spectacle of those huge performances entranced and inspired her but they felt opaque and unattainable. “I had no idea how it [the music] had been assembled or how to break it apart,” she wrote. “I remained merely a fan …with no means of claiming the sounds as my own.” Brownstein went on to describe her experiences a few years later, this time at shows in small clubs. Here, Brownstein could get close to the musicians and observe their techniques and interactions. This is my favorite quote about her realization: “It seems obvious, but it was the first time I realized that music was playable, not just performable—that it had a process.” To me, her story showcases the power of uncovering process. At huge, heavily produced shows, she was an onlooker with no discernible entry point for her own participation. When the making of the music and the performances’ component parts were made visible at smaller shows, the performances felt more accessible and attainable; Brownstein could imagine doing it for herself. I’ve used this story time and again– when consulting with faculty on the design of research assignments, for example–to illustrate the power of uncovering the process of scholarly and creative work rather than focusing on polished products.

What stories do you use (or have you heard) to help illustrate concepts related to library services, procedures, workflows?

[Maura] As a director I often find myself having to explain our work in the library to faculty and administrators on campus in a range of contexts: as library faculty progress through the tenure track, when sharing the institutional questions we get at our service desks in the library with Student Affairs staff, and especially when advocating to fill vacant faculty and staff lines in the library. The analogy I’ve found most useful is from the restaurant world: front of the house for Public Services, and back of the house for Technical Services/Technology. In my previous position I worked at a college that offered Hospitality Management degrees and this analogy was widely understood across campus. But with greater visibility in the media into food and restaurant services over the past few decades I think it could be a useful analogy for anyone trying to make visible the often invisible work that keeps the library functioning. 

[Justin] I’ve heard an interesting comparison from a friend of a librarian’s role to What We Do In The Shadows: there’s so much intellectual work happening behind the scenes, that not all of our students and faculty know about or are aware of. 

[Jen] I just started a new book and was struck by the proverb that the author used as an epigraph: “For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.” I’ve never personally used this proverb although I’m sure I’ve heard it before. But I’m thinking about it with fresh eyes through the lens of this post’s theme. It seems to me that it might serve as a “story” to illustrate the interconnectedness of different domains within library work not to mention the value and importance of the many small details in our day-to-day work. 

What stories do you use (or have you heard) to help illustrate library impact and value?

[Justin] My friend mentioned the metaphor of weight of books to me recently. He’s interested in knowing how much our library collection weighs – why? I have no clue. But he’s right: it makes for an interesting metaphor of the weight of information.

[Hailley] I’ve been recently working on updating our library’s mission and vision statement. In our revision, we did a lot of looking at other library mission and vision statements and the idea that kept coming up is how the library is the “heart of the university.” I don’t have any brilliant thoughts on this at the moment, but it’s definitely a phrase I’ve been thinking about and thinking about if this phrase is useful in defining the impact, value, and place the library has at an institution. 

What stories do you use? To what effect? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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