Storytelling and Libraries

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An Interview with Kate McDowell, Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Kate McDowell has been an Assistant Professor for the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) for the past four years.  The focus of her class is on services to youth in libraries.

How did you get into teaching about storytelling?

I myself took a storytelling class as part of my own Library Science Master's program at UIUC. This led to my discovery that I wanted to teach others about storytelling and so I pursued a Ph.D in library science. Then an opening came about at UIUC when another library school professor  Betsy Hearne, who taught Folklore retired, and so I was able to step in and teach my own storytelling classes.

Kate's # 1 rule in classes:  If you think you have a criticism of someone's storytelling performance, come up with it in the form of a question.   She also encourages the storytellers to ask the audience what kind of feedback they are seeking.

Who attends your classes?

I've had the traditional Public and School Library Children's librarians, but I've also had Information Technology students looking to improve their communication skills, Lawyers, Anthropology students and even a student who told stories from the Koran.

Her classes have included:

  • Fantasy Literature and Media for Youth
  • Youth Services Community Engagement (a service-learning course with required volunteer work)
  • Youth Services Librarianship (in both school and public library settings)

Besides teaching classes on storytelling, you also support UIUC's Storytelling Festival.

Yes, this was a project started by retired UIUC GSLIS professor Betsy Hearne, back in Spring 2003 as part of her outreach work as director of the Center for Children's Books. Hosted by The Center for Children’s Books, the festival takes place each year at the end of the Spring semester. A select group of GSLIS students along with alumni and faculty perform stories. 

This year's event took place on April 16th.  Audio and Video from the 2011 festival and past year's can be viewed at

What Does The History Of Storytelling  Have To Do With Libraries?

In the late 19th century, Children Librarianship was developed and stories were used as a way to keep young people's attention.  Storytelling has always been used as way to pass down folklore and history before it was written down in books.  Today both books and digital media continue this tradition, but a live person telling a story still provides an experience that's unlike anything else. 

Storytelling brings a library's collection alive.  It's a fantastic way to make information or data meaningful.  Think about how companies use storytelling to sell their services and products or how a speaker tells a story to capture his or her audience's attention. 

Digital media has aided storytelling by making it more accessibility to larger groups of people.  For example there's the online video campaign It Gets Better Project where individuals share their own life stories in an effort against the recent bullying of LBGT kids and teens.

The body language and tone of voice of a storyteller brings so much more to the story, and is a great tool for communication. Storytelling also teaches good listening skills.  

What advice would you have for someone interested in forming their own storytelling group?

  • Start by staking some classes.  UIUC offers distance education classes on storytelling, so anyone from anywhere can attend them.
  • Read up on the topic.  My favorite books on storytelling are: Crash Course in Storytelling, by Kendall Haven and MaryGay Ducey,  and The Power of Story: Teaching Through Storytelling, by Rives Collins and Pamela J. Cooper.
  • Use your local library as a resource for hosting your own local group, or see if they already have one.  Use the National Storytelling Network's local resources by state information.

And for those readers who want to attend a storytelling festival this summer?

Again start with the National Storytelling Network. The site lists storytelling festivals and conferences all over the country. There is also additional information on finding a storyteller, plus resources such as a listserv, newsletter, awards and grant funding.

Anything else you'd like to share?

Here is a link to my own Story Song storytelling

Additional questions or comments can be sent to Kate McDowell at