STORY TELLING AS A LIBRARY TOOL
The possibility of library story telling in schools as a means of interesting a larger number of children than is possible at a story hour held in a library is suggested by Miss Alice A. Blanchard in the following paper, also given at the Conference at Clark University in 1909. Alice Arabella Blanchard was born in Montpelier, Vermont; was graduated from Smith College in 1903; from the New York State Library School in 1905, and was a special student in the Training School for Children's Librarians in 1905-1906. From 1906 to 1908 she was the head of the children's department of the Seattle Public Library; in 1909 the head of the school department of the Free Public Library, of Newark, N. J.; from 1910 to 1912 the head of the Schools division of the Seattle Public Library; from 1913 to 1915 the First Assistant in the Children's Department and the Training School for Children's Librarians in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and since that time has been supervisor of work with schools and children in the Free Public Library of Newark, N. J.
The subject which the printed programme for this morning's session assigns to me is How to guide children's reading by story telling. I must begin my talk by an apology; for I shall speak upon only a limited phase of that subject. The subject of guiding children's reading by story telling is a pretty broad one. Tell a good story to a child and he wants to read the book from which it comes. This simple statement means that wherever the child is, at home, at school, in the playground, in the library, in Sunday School, in the settlement, we can exercise a very direct influence upon his reading taste by the stories we tell him. Story telling is a most excellent method of advertising the good books of the world. I shall consider it as a means of advertising books from the librarian's point of view, and treat it simply as a library method, calling it, if you will let me, a library tool.
Story telling is becoming widely popular in schools, in libraries and as a profession by itself. We know that it is an effective method of reaching and influencing children, and that as a method it has advantages over the printed word. Libraries are considering it a part of their work and are using it on a more or less elaborate scale.
It may be too soon, for we have not been using it very long, to know just what place story telling should take in the work of the library; but some of us feel that we are not considering the subject with sufficient care, that we are letting our enthusiasm run away with our common sense in the matter, a little too much in the manner of our friend who has the automobile fever and forgets that life can hold anything else.
It is evident that since no public library ever has enough time and money at its disposal for the work it has to do, it cannot afford to undertake story telling or any other activity which does not further this work. We say that the function of public library work with children is to give them an intelligent love for the best books, and in trying to do this we must reach the greatest number of children at the least expense. If story telling can be an effective tool, enabling us to reach with books more children at less expense than any other method at our command, then it has a legitimate place in library work. If it cannot do this we should let it alone.
Most of us feel that school and libraries have experimented with story telling long enough now to prove that it has its place as a legitimate and valued tool of the library. At the same time we see these facts, however; many libraries do not understand what this place is; many libraries are using story telling as a tool for another's work at the expense of their own; and some libraries are using story telling when, because of their peculiar situation, another tool would better answer their purpose.
If the library is to use story telling it must be to bring children and books together. This it can do successfully. Library reports show that it has interested thousands of children in the library, increased greatly the general circulation of books from the children's shelves, and created popularity for the books from which the stories were selected.
Incidentally, the Story Hour makes a delightful form of entertainment, for the average child loves to hear stories told. It also establishes a very pleasant personal relation between the children who hear the story and the person who tells it. Herein lies a danger for the library of which we take too little account. Because she can by her stories so delightfully entertain her audience and thereby win their affection the story-teller is tempted to lose sight of the purpose of her stories, namely, to guide the children's reading. If she does forget this purpose, her stories, although they may bring the children week after week in throngs, will leave them where they were before, so far as their reading taste is concerned. The fact that the Story Hour makes a delightful form of entertainment, the fact that it establishes a pleasant personal relation between story teller and children, must not be the reason for its adoption by the library. The story teller must tell stories from books which are to be found upon the library shelves and she must tell the children that they are there. Unless the Story Hour advertises the best books, and results in an increased use of them, the library is wasting time and money in its story telling--to put the matter in its most favorable light.
In the second place, many libraries are making the mistake of trying to do too many things with the story telling tool. They forget that the school tells stories, that it can give the child thereby plenty of facts in science, history, geography, and what not; that it teaches him by means of stories, morals and politeness. They forget that the city does not pay them for doing this school work or for doing the work of the playgrounds and parks in keeping children off the streets. Much can be done by the library in all these ways; but it happens that the work which belongs peculiarly to the library and which no other institution can at present do for it, is to give good books to all the children in the city--a task which of itself is enough for any library to hope to do. Therefore we should discard from our story telling all the lessons we are trying to teach, our Christmas tree, our May poles, our fancy costumes and whatever pretty games we play, and simply tell the children stories from books. Fortunately a good story from a book is enough to delight a child without any accompanying frills, so that the time we save by discarding them does not in the least detract from its efficiency.
And we must tell the stories to children. It has been said of one library and, moreover, with some pride, that the story hour was so popular that many grown people came to it; indeed sometimes there was little room left for the children!
Thirdly, the average library does not sufficiently consider whether in its particular case, story telling is the best tool at its command. What is a good tool in one case may not be in another and a given library may be sacrificing much better work when it takes time, as it must always do, from something else for the story hour.
Often a small library has no story teller upon its staff, but it may be doing effective work with children through its work with teachers, its visits to schools and its children's room. It has a small staff and no room adapted for telling stories at the library. Obviously such a library has no need for the story telling tool, yet many libraries like this are struggling hard to use it. Once a week or oftener they are allowing all the usual routine of the library to be upset to accommodate the Story Hour, the story teller has spent many hours of preparation and is under a strain that is little short of misery, and the children, because of the general difficulty of the whole situation, are deriving no greater love for books nor respect for the library. Such a library would do better to give up story telling and put its energy into what it could do more effectively.
But here let me say that often the small library thinks it has no use for story telling as a tool when as a matter of fact it has.
Children's librarians in large or small libraries count school visiting as part of their work. The school visit offers the best of opportunities for the work of the Story Hour. A story told at the end of an informal little talk about the library will bring the children flocking to the library the minute school is over. The small library which has no Story Hour room but which has a story teller can take advantage of this opportunity and do much with it. The story teller can visit three schoolrooms on different days, tell stories to forty children each time, and because the story telling is distributed over the three days, manage with comparative ease the influx of 120 children who may come for books as a result. More than this, the story teller can have told three stories instead of one, so that only one-third of the children will clamor for the same book. This last point is important as all who have had story-hour experience know.
And it is not always the small library which might better tell its stories in school. Consider the city library which has a story teller who tells stories at a Branch. She gets crowds of children, it is true, but many more do not come. She has too many for her story room. Even if she repeats her story until all the eager children get in eventually to hear it the results are of doubtful benefit. It has meant a fearfully strenuous day for the story teller and for the whole Branch; the chances are that the last children to hear the tale gained little from it because the story teller was too tired to tell it well; many of the children have spent most of the afternoon in the scuffle of trying to get in and having to wait when they might have been out of doors playing; and practically all the children were the same ones who always come. And, as in a small library, all the children want the same books, if the stories were good.
School people, as a rule, are very cordial to the library story teller. Since they are, this method seems preferable to the Story Hour at the library. The story teller, besides being spared the difficulty of managing the story hour at the library, has a better opportunity to keep in touch with school work; can reach all the children instead of the same group week after week; interests teacher as well as the children in the books from which the stories are told; and saves the library considerable money in janitor work and heat and light bills. Probably the story teller has neither time nor strength to tell stories both in school and library. Would she not be wise in such a case to tell her stories in the schoolroom?
There is another thing that should be said of story telling as a library tool. If we aim by stories to advertise the best books, how shall we tell the stories to make the books seem most attractive and to get the best results?
We say that the impression the child gets from a story told is greater than that gained from a story read. Then we proceed to tell him in our own words stories which we adapt from the books we think he should know, trusting that he will want the books themselves as a result. Well and good for those books which depend for their value upon subject matter, regardless of style; for folk-lore, for many of the fairy tales and other stories, but not equally well and good for books that are valuable for their literary forces. If a story is dramatic enough for the telling and is written by a master, is it not a shame to give it to a child in an inferior form when he might have it as it was written? If a master did it, it is every bit as dramatic and as easy for the child to understand in the form in which the master wrote it as in the story teller's version, and many times more beautiful.
Why do children's librarians spend so much time in the preparation of their own versions of the good stories of the world when they have so much material which they can use at first hand? The theory is, that a story has more life if told in the story teller's words, that it is likely to be stiff and formal if she must confine herself to the author's words. This need not be so. If the story teller enjoys the story, as a story teller always must, if she appreciates the charm of its expression as the author wrote it, and sees the value of this charm, the author's words will come easily from her lips with all the life of the original. She may have had to cut the original more or less, but that can usually be done without perceptibly marring the story. If the tale does not lend itself to this kind of treatment and she feels that she must adapt the whole thing for her audience, she can at least quote paragraphs. If the story teller gives the child her own version, the child wants the story because or in spite of what she put into it. He gets the book, fails to find the story teller part of it and, as that is all he is after puts the book down or finds the real thing and thinks the teller didn't know it very well, for "She left out some of the best parts."
I am not saying that the story teller's version is worthless. It is good as far as it goes. I am only saying that by it we often miss an opportunity to give the children something better. None of us can tell the Andersen or the Kipling stories as well as the men who wrote them. Why not give them to the children "straight out of the book," as the children say, and why not, for instance, when we are telling stories of the Trojan War, give them passages verbatim from Bryant's Iliad? This kind of story telling may take more time for preparation than the other for some people, it is true, but the resulting benefit is greater. The librarian who has once told an Andersen story in the words of a close translation will never want to do it in her own again.
In spite of all we say about giving him the best books, are we not giving the child too little credit for literary appreciation? Are not some of our simplified versions of the good stories of the world a little too simple? We refuse to leave upon our shelves such foolish things as the Hiawatha primer, or the Stevenson reader (this gives upon one page a poem from the child's garden and on the opposite page a neat translation!), and yet do we not offend sometimes in the same way in our story telling? Let us not run the risk of spoiling the atmosphere and beauty of a good tale by over-adapting it. If it is beyond the child's comprehension in the beginning, let us leave it for him to find when he is older. If our library story telling has been what it should be, the road will be an easy one for him to follow.