By Ru-Jün Zhou
Memria Research Associate
Small to medium-sized historical organizations (libraries, museums, historical societies, etc.) were undergoing undergone paradigm shifts even before the Pandemic, emphasizing community engagement, robust learning, and social well-being. As Scott Bennett puts it in a 2009 article “Libraries and Learning, a History of Paradigm Change”, libraries have moved solidly from a “book-centric” paradigm to a “learning-centric” paradigm. Beyond that, and especially in the post-Pandemic period, these community organzations have become strong civic orgaznations dedicated to social wellbeing more broadly.
The Pathways to Well-being: Public Library Service in Rural Communities (2019) report highlights some essential indicators for social well-being defined by rural residents themselves. An insightful finding is that there is a strong indication of willingness to give up access to standard public library amenities for a deeper experience of social connections.
What does it mean for the public libraries' leadership in rural communities, and perhaps beyond? According to the report, there are five elements in building infrastructures, services, and programs that support social well-being: belonging, shared identity, reciprocity, local-made responses, and self-expression. Further, when evaluating how well their local libraries have performed in offering the above, the research found one of the most unfulfilled areas is the notion of being seen and feeling known.
Many of us might think the findings of what "rural communities" want are not widely applicable. Nonetheless, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, rural counties account for two-thirds of all counties in the country, with an estimated 60 million people (19.3% of the total population), or one-in-five residents are qualified as rural dwellers. Thinking beyond the rural and city binary boundary, isn't the desire of being seen and being less isolated just what it means to be human?
After the report was published, the COVID pandemic disrupted usual human connections on every level imaginable. Public libraries and beyond across the country have been facing historical challenges and a call to pivot their community engagement strategies and services in a short period of time.
During this period, we have seen a mushroom blooming of community storysharing projects organized by historical organizations, often in collaboration with local educational institutions, that aim to bear witness with the community through collecting, curating, and sharing testimonies and narratives from residents.
Depending on the digital literacy and capacity levels, the artifacts collected in these projects came in a range of phone interviews, self-recorded audio narratives, photography, and video recordings. And, the forms and quality of sharing platforms are varied accordingly.
From our conversations with leaders and practitioners interested in exploring storytelling as a tool for community engagement and documenting the community's experience, many of them have expressed two significant concerns.
Firstly, many libraries and museums practitioners have had some level of oral history training; they are concerned about not doing oral history in the right way, which is upheld by establishments such as the Oral History Association. The best practice of conducting oral history projects often requires different areas of expertise and resources, which has become an obstacle for most organizations who have been facing budget cuts. [we will explore in the next blog post with greater depth]
Secondly, many leaders have expressed the dissonance of internal organizational culture - the polarization of receptivity in change and adopting new approaches for the sake of the community.
The Pathway report, in many ways, supports the Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a theory that has been broadly applied in fields including education, organizational development, public health, and civic engagement. SDT is a broad framework to understand how humans are motivated to grow, adapt, and act.
According to the theory, fulfilling three psychological needs is required for an optimal self-motivated state to happen: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In this chaotic time of our world, perhaps SDT has something to offer as an alternative way to think about using community storytelling projects as a praxis of community engagement and promoting social well-being.
Adopting SDT theory in the design implies that each human has the agency to determine one's own life and narratives. There is an acknowledgment and validation of their autobiographical narratives as a source of local contemporary history.
Community members' capacity to express and document their memories, experiences, hopes, and fears can be leveled up through a participatory project design process and a set of accessible tools, including technology, training, and guidelines.
Sharing the artifacts of memories and experiences on a cohesive and generative platform can promote a sense of togetherness and belonging. The creation of this platform requires a closer look at the users' listening experience, philosophically and technically. How to encourage users to listen from the narrator's point of view? How to offer the least technical challenge for users when navigating the platform?
This is not a linear process but rather a shortlist of added guiding values for designing, executing, and evaluating a community storysharing project. A pilot project tailored for the organization's internal staff could be a rewarding learning experience and starting point.