Transmedia storytelling in the academic library


Transmedia storytelling is a bit of a buzzphrase at the moment in education.

It is a powerful way to engage learners, particularly students of the millennial generation who are used to operating across multiple platforms, are accustomed to infinite diversity and are completely at home participating in online media.

For academic libraries who are re-thinking their approach to teaching and learning, transmedia storytelling offers a lot of food for thought.

What is transmedia storytelling?

The phrase “transmedia storytelling” was first used by Prof Henry Jenkins who describes it as:

“the integration of entertainment experiences across a range of media platforms …. Both the commercial and grassroots expansion of narrative universes contribute to a new mode of storytelling, one which is based on an encyclopedic expanse of information which gets put together differently by each individual, as well as processed collectively by social networks and online knowledge communities”

Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner, one of the most well known proponents of transmedia, defines it as:

“the process of conveying messages, themes or story lines to a mass audience thorugh the artful and well-planned use of multiple media platforms.  It is both a technique and philosophy of communications and brand extension that enriches and broadens the life-cycle of creative content.”

Radical technological change, Gomez argues, is bringing about a huge shift in the way entertainment is conceived, produced and distributed.  Shows are developing deep worlds, complex storylines and layered mysteries where the audience has the opportunity to not only access content across a range of media channels, but also voice opinions, and even interact with the characters themselves.

Gomez gives examples of successful transmedia experiences that include the expansion of Star Wars  through the ‘expanded universe’ books, video games and animated television adventures; the Blair Witch Project  as the first film to integrate the internet into a metanarrative, and more recent successful entertainment franchises such as the Hunger Games,  the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and The Lizzie Bennett Diaries.  Gomez and his company have provided transmedia consultation for Pirates of the Carribean, Avatar, Transformers and many more projects.

While transmedia storytelling has obvious application in the entertainment industry, the potential within the education field is gaining a lot of attention.  Gomez spent a week talking with teaching and learning staff at Curtin University about how transmedia techniques can be used to transform the student experience, as part of the development of a teaching and learning model that is interactive, collaborative, personalised and fun, where students learn at their own pace through active participation and inquiry.

I was fortunate to attend one of Gomez’ masterclasses.  As you might expect, he is a wonderful storyteller, and the way he interweaved his own personal story with advice on how to ‘do’ transmedia storytelling was truly masterful.

Some of the main takeaways for me were:

  • Stories are incredibly powerful for learning and they present opportunities for creativity and self-expression
  • ‘Your ears will never get you into trouble’ Frank Tyger.   Spend time listening! – to your clients, your audience
  • Stories should flow the way people flow – people constantly move attention from mobiles to computers to TV screens
  • All the different platforms – films, books, websites, live events, mobile apps, animation, social networking, games – can operate in concert like a symphony, with each platform adding to the picture, connecting the pieces of the story.  The whole is more than the sum of the parts.
  • Transmedia storytelling provides the ability to follow a particular thread through a whole story, yet achieve consistency.
  • It’s important to have a vision (something positive you want to achieve), to create a grand narrative or universe (the storyworld), and to have a core, inspirational message that is consistent throughout and conveyed through archetypes.

Transmedia and learning in the library

Learning activities involving transmedia are becoming more common in the classroom, with students engaging in stories and storytelling using interactive media across a range of technologies and apps.

Library media specialist Laura Fleming argues that transmedia storytelling exemplifies learning in the twenty-first century and has profound implications for effectively producing and consuming content across media platforms. In her article Expanding Learning Opportunities with Transmedia Practices: Inanimate Alice as an Exemplar, she writes:

“As an educator, I have come to recognize the place of transmedia in learning and how it applies to our instructional practices. This includes, amongst many others, the eternal power of storytelling, literacy in the digital age, the shifting locus of control in education from teacher to learner, the need now to consider a spectrum of transliteracies for our young people, and the merging of storytelling with the current crop of digital and networking technologies.”

Clearly, there is a lot of potential for libraries to use transmedia storytelling as a way of inspiring students to read, create and imagine in the digital world. As facilitators for the development of digital literacy, libraries can help students develop the necessary skills to either create their own transmedia stories, or learn by engaging in existing ones.

There is also a lot of potential for the academic library to create their own transmedia storytelling experience to engage students.

To do so, libraries would need to think carefully about what stories they want to tell.  What is our core message?  What are our main themes?  It is likely themes would revolve around the value and use of data, information and knowledge, but each library would bring their own unique perspective to bear on the story they create.

When I started thinking about some of the learning activities we are developing at our library, I realised that we have already started on a transmedia storytelling path.  Using Bitstrips comic-maker, we’ve been creating various characters and animating them using CrazyTalk animation software.  We’ve been using them in our learning activities across a range of media – videos, comic strips, handouts, augmented reality activities and games.

From here it’s a small step to create a storyworld  (or “learning world” as Laura Fleming refers to it in the education realm) by developing a core message and central theme around which we could weave many different layers of stories, instructional activities and interactions with students.

Here’s my idea for a storyworld in brief:  It is set in the library and there is a group of characters that represent various archetypes (wise sage, champion/hero, trickster, magician … ) They hang out in the library makerspace and invent a time-machine, which enables them to have lots of adventures in the future and past.  The core message and themes would be developed around ‘data-information-knowledge-wisdom’ and how it is used – e.g. for good or evil (or perhaps the more nuanced and complex grey area in between)?

OK, maybe it is not such a small step, but it’s fun to imagine and think about!

Some useful library-related blog posts

Designer Librarian:  The 7 literacies of transmedia storytelling

The Digital Shift: Transmedia and Education: How Transmedia is changing the way we learn 


Guardian of Life, by CottonValent

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