New project to assist libraries with data storytelling

Kate McDowell
Kate McDowell, Associate Professor
Matthew Turk
Matthew Turk, Assistant Professor

A new project led by Associate Professor Kate McDowell and Assistant Professor Matthew Turk will help libraries tell data stories that connect with their audiences. Their project, "Data Storytelling Toolkit for Librarians," has received a two-year, $99,330 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS grant RE-250094-OLS-21), under the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program, which supports innovative research by untenured, tenure-track faculty.

"There are thousands of librarians who are skittish about data but love stories," explained McDowell, who co-teaches a data storytelling course at the iSchool with Turk. "And there are hundreds of librarians who see data as fundamental, but until those librarians have a language through which to connect with the passions of the thousands who love stories, this movement toward strategic data use in the field of libraries will be stifled, along with the potential collaborative creativity of librarians."

The data storytelling toolkit will provide a set of easy-to-adapt templates, which librarians can use to move quickly from data to story to storytelling. Librarians will be able to use the toolkit to plug in data they already have and generate data visualization and narrative structure options.

"To give an example, public libraries need to communicate employment impact. In this case, the data story will include who has become employed based on library services, how (journey map showing a visual sequence of steps from job seeking to employment), a structure for the story of an individual's outcomes, and a strong data visualization strategy for communicating this impact," said McDowell.

According to the researchers, the toolkit will be clearly defined so that librarians understand the potential for communicating with data but also fully adaptable to each librarian's setting and to the communication needs inside the organization and with the public. The project will focus on community college and public libraries, with initial collaborators to include Ericson Public Library in Boone, Iowa; Oregon City (OR) Public Library; Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Illinois; Jackson State Community College in Jackson, Tennessee; and The Urbana Free Library.

McDowell's storytelling research has involved training collaborations with advancement staff both at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Illinois system; storytelling consulting work for multiple nonprofits including the 50th anniversary of the statewide Prairie Rivers Network that protects Illinois water; and storytelling lectures for the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois (CARLI). McDowell researches and publishes in the areas of storytelling at work, social justice storytelling, and what library storytelling can teach the information sciences about data storytelling. She holds both an MS and PhD in library and information science from Illinois.

Turk also holds an appointment with the Department of Astronomy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. His research focuses on how individuals interact with data and how that data is processed and understood. He is a recipient of the prestigious Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation's Moore Investigator Award in Data-Driven Discovery. Turk holds a PhD in physics from Stanford University.

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