Once Upon a Time in the Academic Library: Storytelling Skills for Librarians

ACRL announces the publication of Once Upon a Time in the Academic Library: Storytelling Skills for Librarians, edited by Maria Barefoot, Sara Parme, and Elin Woods. This fun, eminently readable guide provides innovative ideas for incorporating storytelling into your teaching and communication, and can inspire you to invent new ways of using it in your work.

Learn more about Once Upon a Time in the Academic Library in this excerpt from the Introduction by the editors, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.

Theoretical Roots of Storytelling

While we are approaching storytelling as a communication method in this book, it’s important to understand the theoretical roots of storytelling in all of its forms. Storytelling draws upon basic brain science to understand how humans learn, think, and adapt to situations. The three major theories we will examine include constructivism, affective learning theory, and narrative theory.


Constructivism as a theory was developed by three major theorists: Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Ernst von Glasersfield. Piaget developed the theory of cognitive constructivism, which asserts that humans build new knowledge upon prior knowledge.1 In academic libraries, we often see this play out with students who are familiar with the natural language and algorithm-driven search mechanisms of Google. This prior knowledge leads students to apply the same search structure to keyword-driven library databases and catalogs. Library users who have relied on Google’s search algorithm for many of the search queries they complete in their daily lives often assume that the strategies that were successful in that environment will be equally effective in other library interfaces, which is rarely the case.

Lev Vygotsky developed the idea of social constructivism, which asserts that we build knowledge based on our interactions with others.2 His early work was carried out with children, but this same behavior can be seen in academic library spaces as well. Imagine a scenario where a library patron approaches the reference desk with an ISBN number for a book. This patron is likely building on their prior experiences interacting with salespeople at a bookstore or an online shopping site that can easily look up a book by an ISBN. So, when they hand the reference librarian the number, the librarian asks, “Do you know anything else about the book, like the author or title?” The patron’s expression may shift to confusion, surprise, and frustration at being asked this question. In other social interactions, when searching for information, the ISBN has been all that was needed. This kind of scenario is a perfect example of how social interactions become vital in how a patron learns to use and interact with the library.

The third piece of constructivist theory is radical constructivism originally theorized by Ernst von Glasersfield. In this theory of constructivism, he asserts that all knowledge is constructed rather than perceived through the senses.3 Lisa Feldman Barrett has advanced this theory through her work on constructed emotion. She outlines how emotions are not universal experiences and are instead reliant upon the society in which they exist. With the exception of bad feelings and good feelings, humans experience emotions differently depending on the culture in which they are situated.4 Jonathan Gottschall also discusses how this plays out with memory. Brain scientists have discovered that memories are fluid and change slightly every time we recall them.5 Within libraries, we see this play out as we watch student workers or tour guides explain the library to prospective or new students. Without fail, student-led tours often emphasize one service in the library over another. Perhaps one tour guide mentions how they get all of their textbooks through interlibrary loan; this example shows how that student tour guide associated the library with that particular service that was helpful to them. Another student would likely emphasize something completely different in their own tours. The important piece to remember is that every student on that tour will likely find their own piece of the library to emphasize as they have their own experiences in the library. Radical constructivism recognizes that these experiences are unique to each student and each will remember their own experiences slightly differently.

These three theories of constructivism work together when we engage in storytelling. If we think back to the discussion of storytelling as an art, educational approach, and communication method, we can see all three of these approaches in constructivism as well. Palmer, Harshbarger, and Koch discuss the idea of fairy tales becoming learning devices, especially in children.6 Fairy and folk tales are one of the best examples of how storytelling bridges the three definitions discussed earlier as well as rely on constructivism to enhance learning and communication. In fairy and folk tales, there is often a reliable structure to the story. The rhythm of the story becomes repetitive in a way that is easy for listeners to imitate and replicate. Constructivism as a whole recognizes that our brains must have a structure to create knowledge. That structure may be prior knowledge, experience, or memory, but the result is that we build knowledge from previous moments in our lives, which makes every learning experience learning unique to the learner.

Affective Learning Theory

Like constructivism, affective learning theory builds on how the brain naturally works to create new knowledge. Affective learning theory acknowledges the role that emotion, attitudes, and motivation play in creating new knowledge. Affective learning theory refers to one of three educational domains outlined by Benjamin Bloom, David Krathwhol, and Bertram B. Masia, which included the cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains of learning.7 The affective domain specifically consists of five categories: receiving, responding, valuing, organizing, and characterizing.

Each of these categories builds on the previous one to work toward internalizing new information. When someone internalizes new information, it begins to guide and change their behavior. At the beginning stage of receiving, the learner is simply aware of new information. At the responding stage, the learner must engage with the new information. Information literacy librarians who are aware of active learning pedagogy will recognize the responding stage as a common way to incorporate active learning into instruction sessions. The last three categories, however, are harder to measure and incorporate because they rely on the learner to engage with the material. In the valuing category, learners must be able to see and express how that piece of information is valuable to their own goals. Organizing involves combining values, information, and ideas and relating them to previously held beliefs. Valuing and organizing may sound familiar from the discussion of constructivism. In these stages, the learner must find ways to relate information to their own lives and place value on that information. The final category of characterizing is where learners have internalized new information and begun to form new behaviors around that information.

With these stages in mind, let’s think back to the scenario of the student with an ISBN number at the reference desk. In order to adjust their behavior in a library setting, the student will not only have to receive the information that they can’t use the ISBN to search for a book, but they will also have to respond to that knowledge, find value in the result, organize that piece of information alongside the existing knowledge they have about searching for textbooks, and then categorize it so that it becomes a part of their regular behavior. The process is ripe with emotional cracks that would cause students to steer clear of the library in the future. For example, the student may be willing to learn the library structure in the responding category but finds that the library doesn’t have the book they were looking for. At this point, the student may have trouble valuing the new information.

One of the major benefits of using storytelling pedagogy in academic library settings is that storytelling has evolved to include the affective domain. The use of emotion in storytelling is one of the major ways that we relate to characters and situations. Lisa Cron describes how stories rely on emotion when she says that effective stories only include information that affects the protagonist in some way. The protagonist has opinions about the events in a plot, he or she gets angry, confused, or frustrated depending on what has happened to them.8 The human brain has the impressive ability to re-create emotional responses from stories as if we were actually living those emotions.9 While telling a story is an excellent way of evoking emotion and engaging the affective learning dimension in our students, an even better way is to ask students to tell their own stories. This is exactly the kind of storytelling that narrative theory addresses.

Narrative Theory

Narrative Theory is the study of how people construct and use stories to make meaning out of events. Narrative theory is, in fact, the basis of story as a communication method. While affective learning theory and constructivist theories developed within educational and social environments, narrative theory was developed by Walter Fisher as a way of explaining human communication.10 Narrative theory clashes with the rational world paradigm by questioning the idea that humans make decisions based on logic. Rather, narrative theory claims that humans make decisions based on narrative rationality, which is determined by how accurately our own experiences reflect those of the story that we are presented with. Fisher called this concept narrative fidelity.

With these ideas in mind, we can see how narrative theory builds on social constructivism. Humans must recognize their own experiences within a story in order to build from that story. We can also see how affective learning theory comes into play by asking the reader or listener to internalize the story as they generate their own meaning from it. Cron discusses how narratives do not just exist to entertain or even to organize information. Instead, they exist as a way for our brains to identify and solve problems.11

If we approach the idea of seeking information from a narrative perspective, we can recognize that, for students, reference questions and research papers are often situated within a particular problem. Badke highlights this by saying that all researchers bring stories of fear, procrastination, curiosity, and relationships to their research process.12 In order to access this internal narrative, Detmering and Johnson advocate for having students reflect on their research narrative in information literacy instruction. In their research, they often found that students felt discouraged when they were asked to minimize their own voices in their research and that students found research tasks most rewarding when they were asked to reflect on their own assumptions and values surrounding the research process.13 While their research focused on the information literacy classroom, it could also be applied at service points throughout the library as well as being embedded in the reference interview.


1. Jacqueline Grennon Brooks, “Constructivism,” in Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, ed. L. Nadel (New York: Wiley, 2005), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/book/10.1002/0470018860.

2. Brooks, “Constructivism.”

3. Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions are Made (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2017), 128.

4. Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012), 164.

5. Barbara C. Palmer, Shelley J. Harshbarger, and Cindy A. Koch, “Storytelling as a Constructivist Model for Developing Language and Literacy,” Journal of Poetry Therapy 14 (2001): 199, https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1017541527998.

6. David R. Krathwohl, Benjamin S. Bloom, and Bertram B. Masia, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, the Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook II: Affective Domain (New York: David McKay Co, Inc., 1964).

7. Lisa Cron, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2012), 47.

8. Will Storr, The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human and How to Tell Them Better, read by the author, audiobook, 7 hr., 3 min. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2019).

9. James Watson and Anne Hill, “Narrative paradigm,” Dictionary of Media and Communication Studies, 9th ed. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015).

10. Cron, Wired for Story, 8.

11. Badke, “Research Is a Narrative,” 70.

12. Robert Detmering and Anna Marie Johnson, “‘Research Papers Have Always Seemed Very Daunting’: Information Literacy Narratives and the Student Research Experience,” portal: Libraries and the Academy 12, no. 1 (2012): 5–22, http://doi.org/10.1353/pla.2012.0004.

13. Doug Lipman. Improving Your Storytelling: Beyond the Basics for All Who Tell Stories in Work or Play (Little Rock, AR: August House, 1999).