Off the Beaten Path

The Importance of Stories and Local Libraries

~ by Guy Priel ~

 Recently I had the chance to speak with the retiring librarian of Manitou Springs.

 After spending 10 years teaching, she realized that libraries were the place to be and regrets that she didn’t get involved in working at them sooner. That got me to thinking about libraries, books, and stories. In this technological age, we can all access books on our phones, but there is something about holding a book (or newspaper) in your hands.


The importance of libraries becomes more than just a place to use the computer, but a place for a good story. A few years ago, ABC aired a series called “Once Upon A Time,” about storybook characters living in the modern world in Maine because of a curse placed on them by the wicked witch, who was the mayor. I loved the show and never missed an episode.

I have always been fascinated with stories, which is probably why I became a writer. When I hear or read the phrase “Once upon a time,” I lean forward a little, either literally or figuratively, because I know I am about to be taken on a timeless excursion. I may wrestle with giants and slay dragons, or match wits with evil stepmothers and sorcerers. I may discover buried treasure or dive to the bottom of the sea.

In fact, “once upon a time” is a sort of incantation, an invitation to enter into the world of story, to be carried along by the skill of the storyteller to whatever destination he or she may have the courage and craft to attempt.

Storytelling is a high calling, an art with deep implications. They are as essential to society as language itself. In every age and culture, humans have been storytellers. Story is the tool, perhaps more basic than fire, by which civilization has been shaped and altered. Native Americans had an oral tradition they passed on through the generations, an art that is, unfortunately, being lost in the modern era.

Our stories define us as individuals and as nations. If you would know the heart of a tribe, a nation, or a culture, learn its stories. If you could understand the fondest dreams and deepest aspirations of a people, find out who the heroes and legends of their stories are and hear their stories.

J.R.R. Tolkien always talked about a tree of tales that represents the vast body of story, myth and legend through which mankind has, throughout history and in all cultures, striven to make sense of the sometimes hostile and always confusing universe in which he finds himself.

Tolkien chose a tree because, in his view, all tales, legends, stories and myths, however ancient or modern, are manifestations and efflorescences from a central trunk, a unified source which is the beginning point of all story, legend, myth and truth.

Many people, however, would much prefer to maintain the walls between story and truth. One reason is that the essence of the story is a mystery and our time is not too tolerant of mysteries. We think that, unless we can track it down, document it, observe it, quantify it and replicate it under controlled laboratory conditions, it isn’t true.

We assume that our destiny is to capture and domesticate the entire physical universe, to codify it and quarantine it with laws, axioms, theories and hypotheses. We assume that the only good mystery is a dead one.

The interesting theory is that the more we find out, the more elusive complete knowledge becomes. We cannot really discover anything about quarks, mesons and neutrons without changing them in the process to something unfamiliar and undocumented. Every discovery creates a new question mark.

Part of the reason for the power of the story is that when we listen, our capacity to hear is changed. We are pulled outside ourselves; our petty concerns and our carefully constructed defenses and are compelled to interact directly with the heart-changing truths of the tale and its characters. We suspend judgment except as it applies to the justness of the story. We are instructed without realizing it. Thrones and legal arguments can never prevail against the potent authority of the story that is well told.

That is why everyone, regardless of age, can enjoy a good story and should be told stories often. They can take us around the world and introduce us to interesting people. That is one beauty of libraries and librarians.

The importance of the story to the transmission of truth is no accident of culture. Indeed, the universal presence of a story within all cultures would suggest that all humans have an inherent need for stories as tools to grapple with the immense equations of life, death, injustice, mercy and the destiny of the universe.

How cultures deal with their stories and myths is what makes them unique. Each culture has stories that were either written down or passed down from generation to generation. Many people have heard stories on the knees of their grandparents that may have changed over the years, but are always important.

All stories do contain a grain of truth and teach lessons about basic events. The best storytellers become a part of their stories. And librarians can help that process.