Collecting, connecting, communicating

Librarians collect stuff. To collect is one of the most important verbs in the librarian’s instruction manual. Probably the next most important is to categorise. There is a connection between these two. We do not collect randomly but with a focus, a pattern. I spot a connection, or a co-incidence, and add something to the collection. I fill gaps to complete a pattern. I always delight to find connections in unexpected places, to recognise the pattern in a group of divergent items. And finally I must tell potential library users what we have, or communicate to them the contents of the library.

How many items do you need to have a collection? I think one item is a starting-point but not a collection. A pair is showing promise, and three items is the start of a trend. Four items is certainly a collection and with five you are definitely onto something. Round about seven items something happens and as you head towards ten you may need to start subdividing the collection.

I have observed that the way I think up possible topics for blog posts is rather similar to my habits as a librarian. I collect factoids – nuggets of news, observations and opinions – then I make links between them and previous observations stored in that leaky place I call my memory. Sometimes I will start to feel that I want to tell the story and my fingers itch to write something down.

What makes me want to write? The topic may be intrinsically interesting (that is, to me) or be something that I feel a mission to tell you about. I may spot an interesting coincidence or pattern between two or three news announcements. Often (too often?) I make a connection between something happening today and something I recall from my past experience. (I realise now why ‘old’ people seem to talk about the past a lot; it is just because their range of experience stretches back in time and so they often find connections ‘back then’ to talk about).

If I have just one point to start from then I will have to do a bit of work – researching and fleshing out the point with some further facts, or (rarely for me) giving my own opinion. I feel more comfortable if I have three points to start from, then I can enclose a space by drawing lines between the points. I can test out the connections – stretching them a bit and rearranging them. I might realise that what I thought at first was interesting is in fact rather dull, or pointless, or obvious. Quite often I feel that one day, but then a few days later it looks interesting again and I wonder whether it is self-doubt or a reality check. The danger with my three-point turn is ending up with a list: “There is X. There is Y. There is Z”. That does not make for an interesting blogpost. The next step, I now realise, is to tell a story.

Last week I went to a SameAs meeting about storytelling. I have a couple more storytelling things to relate, but I will save them for later (note my careful list avoidance!). The evening meeting included three very different talks (uh oh, I sense a list coming).

Irene Ros and Alex Graul talked about data-driven journalism, or telling stories through data visualisation. They drew an interesting parallel with photojournalism, where the context of a picture can be vital to the story, there may be multiple stories going on in one picture, and the framing of the photograph can affect the story being told. The same is true for data in journalism. It is easy to mislead (tell the wrong story) by showing partial data or by ignoring the context. It is easy to distort the presentation of data by cunning choice of colour, e.g. making a story seem bleaker by choosing dark colours. Although one might think that data-driven stories are objective, in fact it comes down to a matter of trust. Do you trust the journalist to portray the data honestly.

Ed Yong told us a story that brought us back to a more traditional realm of storytelling, but not that traditional. He told us it was a metametameta story. Once upon a time, 300 million years ago, there was a mayfly that made an imprint in some mud. The impression survived as a fossil. Fast forward to just a few years ago. A student found an unpublished thesis from 1929 that described an area rich in fossils. His supervisor then went in search of the area, got lost in a swamp and then found the place with its treasure trove of fossils. Striking a piece of sandstone he found the mayfly imprint. Later he published his findings in PNAS. Ed Yong saw the paper, became interested and uncovered all the layers of the story that lay behind the paper.

Ed believes that we should have more of this – not just the story of the science but the story behind the science. He admitted that this was easier in paleontology and behavioural science than in biomolecular sciences, where your characters are all molecules rather than 300 million year old insects. Sean Bechhofer wrote up his thoughts on Ed’s talk over on his Humbly Report blog, if you want to read more.

The last speaker of the evening was Tassos Stevens, who told us that he had run away from academic science to joing the theatre. He got us to play a game called “What happens next”, where members of the audience make up a story one step at a time.  He started us off and then asked “What happens next?” and slowly the story built. He emphasised that this impulse to know “what happens next” is a key driver in our love of stories. Tassos referred to the moment “sharp intake of breath” Then he told us the story of Pericles, Prince of Tyre – one of Shakespeare’s less well-known plays – using the same technique, inviting us to guess the story.  We did more or less get there eventually. It was interesting how repeating patterns in the story emerged – princesses, sexual intrigue, sea journeys, and pirates. Tassos observed that elegant storytelling often involves this kind of recapitulation or echo, using what has gone before.

The essence of a story then is the what happens next moment, the pivotal point in the sequence

Action – Uncertain outcome – Present moment (suspense) – Resolution

That is the point when we take a sharp intake of breath and time stands still as wait to see what happens next. Tassos suggested that the most satisfying answer to what happens next is often the thing that we didn’t know we wanted to happen, which makes some kind of sense to me.

What happened next after I left the SameAs event was a realisation that storytelling is a skill that I need to work on.  I spotted a nice video by Ira Glass on the subject – he points out that “creative excellence takes time to develop. It also comes with hard work”. I then got to reflecting on the connections and differences between storytelling and curating. The skill of curating was emphasised in a blogpost by a US librarian, John Farrier. He says you have to know your audience, then compile potential content and “pitch your content to the audience in an attention-grabbing way”.  I think Storify and Pinterest are both examples of sites to exercise curation skills, and to tell a story or a narrative.

I recall ages ago reading something (I think by Lorcan Dempsey, but I can’t quite remember) that compared the descriptions of objects produced by librarians, archivists and museum curators. Librarians catalogue books, describing the physical and intellectual characteristics of the book in a fairly dry way. Archivists catalogue unpublished documents and collections in a hierarchical way; they are concerned not just with the document itself but the context of the person or organisation.  Archive catalogues tell more of a story than book catalogues. Museum object descriptions are more explicitly narratives that try to explain the significance of an object and explain what it means. I never did get down to digesting that half-formed thought, about catalogues and narratives and different styles of metadata-making. That will have to be the story for a future blogpost.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we slip from print through to electronic information resources.
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4 Responses to Collecting, connecting, communicating

  1. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Nice post, Frank. My husband and I have been listening to lots of story-telling podcasts – Radiolab, Risk, Snap Judgment, This American Life, The Moth, Love and Radio, the Story Collider (the latter focuses on science), and he commented the other week that he would have loved to learn about the essence of story telling in high school. When it’s done well it’s amazing, but it’s actually quite hard to pull out the common themes from the best examples because they’re all so different.

    BTW I got my collector’s badge in the Brownies for collecting and categorising sea shells. I still enjoy categorising things, and absolutely love deciding which things to put where in a new bag / cupboard / desk / house!

    • Frank says:

      Thanks, Cath. Yes, I think there are probably several different dimensions to a good storytelling technique. The subject of the story is important too – it can be frustrating listening to a brilliantly told story but which is of no consequence whatever.

  2. Frank, is your house as organized as your library? Or would that be too much of a busman’s holiday?

    • Frank says:

      Jenny, sadly I have a demon of chaos at work inside me, fighting with the angel of order. At work the angel wins (but don’t look at the state of my desk). At home the demon rules. Luckily I live with a domestic angel who helps to restore the balance.