Storytelling as Information Part 1: The S-DIKW Framework

Storytelling as Information

Kate McDowell, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Part 1: The S-DIKW Framework


Storytelling has rarely been considered related to information. Most definitions of information presume searching as individuals, a limit which ignores storytelling in its collective audience and shared retelling of information. Storytelling always involves audiences, and a story can be both wide open to audience interpretation and amazingly persistent over thousands of years. Indeed, when it comes to the information that is most meaningful to us, we organize that information as story. So what do we miss about information when we ignore the basic storytelling tendencies of the human mind?

Because of the 130-plus year history of storytelling in library services to youth, our field has rich practices that can inform definitions of storytelling and story. Storytelling requires the dynamic triangle of story, teller, and audience. The three relationships inform each other; the audience’s relationship to the teller depends on the teller’s own relationship to the story and which story the teller chooses to tell that audience (McDowell, 2020). In LIS storytelling, the teller is “the instrument; the story is the main feature” (Bishop & Kimball, 2006). And the audience interprets the story, based on everything the teller does (words, gestures, expressions, etc.). The audience’s responses, from laughter to eye-rolls, can influence the teller as well.

—Storytelling polishes stories like editing polishes essays, with the audience serving as editor.—

Story means both narratively patterned information and the experience of a story. A story is structured by the chronology of narrative (beginning, middle, end) and the logic of narrative (character, setting, plot). Prior LIS scholarship has considered story as folktale in scholarship that mapped collections and set standards for sources notes describing oral stories captured in print (Hearne, 1999; MacDonald, 1982; Sturm, 1999). These primarily empirical approaches are complementary to semiotic approaches from narratology, which explicitly connecting social and cultural knowledge with the experience of a story (Barthes, 1974). In other words, stories can persist in remarkably similar forms over long spans of time around the world while, at the same time, each audience interprets stories through collective narrative experience. As one sociologist said, “We expect ambiguity in narrative, that is, words and events will not mean what at first they seem to” (Polletta, 2006). Stories as information are both pre-structured and socially constructed, bridging the usual disconnect betwen empirical and constructionist ways of knowing.

S-DIKW Framework

Storytelling polishes stories like editing polishes essays, with the audience serving as editor. S-DIKW is a new framework, based on the well-known data, information, knowledge, and wisdom hierarchy (DIKW), for analyzing storytelling as information (McDowell, 2021).

This framework suggests a paradigm shift in information research, reframing storytelling as a key site of investigation for the information sciences and taking collective meaning making seriously.

S-DIKW framework:

  • S-Data: Ability to identify and interpret data from which information emerges that can be communicated in story.
  • S-Information: Ability to inform audiences by communicating data with context as story, in both form and narrative experience.
  • S-Knowledge: Ability to convey knowledge as complex actionable information through the construction and telling of a story, incorporating cultural and contextual cues. S-knowledge is shared frequently in innovative or experimental contexts.
  • S-Wisdom: Ability to know which story to tell—including when, how, and to whom—in order to convey wisdom.

Each level of this framework is about a subset of storytelling abilities which can be identified in action. S-Information builds on the ability to interpret S-Data, and communicate data with story context. S-Knowledge is information in action, constructed and shared as a story. S-Wisdom can potentially emerge from the storytelling triangle and at minimum requires the complex ability to select which story to tell when, how, and to whom. While wisdom is notoriously tricky to identify and define, is has long been associated with stories and storytelling in many cultural traditions.


In storytelling terms, data are like semes, which are the smallest units of signification in semiology (Barthes, 1974) or motifs which the smallest elements of a folktale that persists in tradition (Clarkson & Cross, 1980). Despite frequent uses of “data-driven” or the verb “emerge” to describe analysis, and despite data being accurate and empirically valid, data can be told in story only after human interpretation. Data in story context becomes information.


Any expert-as-storyteller is able to express the same information in different ways in order to reach different audiences. Audiences influence various ways that information in story is retold over time, as their reactions add collective understandings to the story. However, information in story does not infinitely collapse into audience-pleasing. Stories contain information in a story structure that both persists over time and changes through retelling. The audience serves as editor, but the storyteller is still the author.


Stories can do more than inform; a powerful story also moves the audience emotionally, especially when a story contains valuable lessons or insights. Audiences are more likely to listen to a story if they understand that, in doing so, they might gain knowledge. Story can help make complex sequences easy to remember, with a plot that communicates how one event leads to another. Story can also give lasting form to organizational memory when important moments of an organization’s history—its founding, weathering crisis, transformation of vision—are retold over time. Knowledge communicated in story can guide the knower’s tone and gesture along with their actions, because knowledge in story communicates not only what to do but how to do it the right way and offers an example of why. However, in some cases, knowledge of how to do something is not enough, such as when conflicts exist over information and/or data. In uncertain, conflictual, or paradoxical situations, we need wisdom.


Wisdom is challenging to define. In story, wisdom often means discovering a way beyond the ways that seem obvious. The hero might succeed by doing the unexpected, such as answering a test with a test. Wisdom can be the province of groups as well as individuals. For example, in a Haitian folktale, the girl Tipingee’s stepmother tries to give her away as a servant to a stranger. The stepmother dresses her in red to mark her for taking, but Tipingee overhears and shares the plan with all of the village girls. So they all wear red, hiding her in plain sight, and repeat the (infectious) chorus of “I’m Tipingee, she’s Tipingee, we’re Tipingee too,” until the stranger takes the stepmother instead (Ragan, 1998; Wolkstein & Henriquez, 1980). The audience might hear the moral of the Tipingee story as any of these: that the village should stick together, children should stick together, adults do not always have children’s best interests at heart, the powerful do not always have the interests of the vulnerable at heart, a combination of these, or something else. Choosing to communicate information by telling a story effectively involves one aspect of wisdom.Wisdom may also entail knowing which story to tell when and why, which involves profoundly social and contextual insights. Researching when information is communicated via story—not in spite of but because of its inherent ambiguity or interpretive openness—could reveal moments of enacted wisdom, providing clues to how individuals and groups develop wisdom.

Story is a fundamental information form, and storytelling is foundational to needed definitions of collective information. Connecting empirical and social constructionist epistemologies, the S-DIKW framework provides a way of understanding storytelling as information in action. Understanding information as story reveals the need for a paradigm shift, away from an implicit information individualism and toward story as information, storytelling as communication, and information as collective. Applying this framework will allow for better understandings of a wide range of informative storytelling, from collective knowledge to current crises in misinformation, as will be discussed in Part 2.


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Polletta, F. (2006). It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics. https://doi.org/10.1177/009430610803700327

Ragan, K. (1998). Fearless girls, wise women, and beloved sisters : heroines in folktales from around the world (1st ed.). New York : W.W. Norton.

Sturm, B. W. (1999). The Enchanted Imagination: Storytelling’s Power to Entrance Listeners. School Library Media Research, 2, 1–21.

Wolkstein, D., & Henriquez, E. (1980). The magic orange tree, and other Haitian folktales . New York: Schocken Books.

Cite this article in APA as: McDowell, K. (2021, October 19). Storytelling as information part 1: The S-DIKW framework. Information Matters. Vol.1, Issue 10.  https://r7q.22f.myftpupload.com/2021/10/storytelling-as-information-part-1-the-s-dikw-framework/

Kate McDowell

Kate McDowell teaches storytelling and data storytelling courses, and is the 2022 recipient of the ASIS&T Outstanding Information Science Teacher Award. She researches and publishes in the areas of storytelling as information research, social justice storytelling, and what library storytelling can teach the information sciences about data storytelling. Her projects engage contexts such as libraries, non-profit fundraising, health misinformation, social justice in libraries, and others. Dr. McDowell has worked with regional, national, and international nonprofits including the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO, part of WHO), the Public Library Association (PLA), and the Research Institute for Public Libraries (RIPL). Her nationally-funded project Data Storytelling Toolkit for Librarians with co-PI Dr. Matthew Turk is under development (https://imls.gov/grants/awarded/re-250094-ols-21). Her storytelling research has involved training collaborations with advancement with both the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and the University of Illinois system (Chicago, Springfield), storytelling consulting work for multiple nonprofits including the 50th anniversary of the statewide Prairie Rivers Network that protects Illinois water, and regular storytelling workshops for the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois (CARLI). She formerly served as Interim Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Interim Assistant Dean for Student Affairs and has led multiple transformative projects for the School.