February 17, 2018

Mimi Cirillo | Movers & Shakers 2006

Rural Lives


Storytelling runs throughout Mimi Cirillo’s life and work. As a Cherokee, ‘I grew up with stories,’ she says, ‘play-acted stories’ with friends, ‘joined drama [club] to act out stories.’ As a teacher, ‘[I] used stories to help students understand concepts.’ Now she uses stories and storytelling as outreach coordinator for the Pemberton library.

When she discovered how hard it was for many people in this rural area to get to the library, Cirillo took the library to them. ‘Our strategy was to establish outreach sites at hospitals and detention centers and provide special library presentations at the sites where the communities gathered – McDonald’s, town fairs, military base orientations.’ She started book chats and craft sessions at Buttonwood Elderly Hospital Center, book delivery and short story discussions at the county juvenile detention center, a shared summer reading program with nearby Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base, and storytelling sessions at the local college’s day care center.

Through stories – her own and theirs – Cirillo connects with the detention center’s streetwise, untrusting kids. Once their shared stories have broken down the barriers, stories become a way for these kids to feel valuable: they read fairy tales aloud, and Cirillo tapes and catalogs them for the library’s ‘Easy’ collection.

Asked why she’s so dedicated to serving the rural poor, the elderly, and the incarcerated, Cirillo tells a Cherokee story: When a boy trained a wounded eagle to fish, his cousin asked him why he let the eagle leave uneaten fish on the rocks where forest animals could grab them? Why not bring the fish home to his family? The boy replied, ‘My family knows how to fish.’ Says Cirillo, ‘There are many, many people who need to learn to fish so they can choose how to live.’

Now she spends her life bringing the library – the repository of the world’s stories – to these people, the stories that in her Cherokee tradition are sacred lessons. And that, she says, ‘makes what libraries do a very powerful responsibility.’



Current Position Coordinator of Outreach and Programming, Pemberton Branch, Burlington County Library, NJ
Degrees MLS, Villanova University, 1984
Fun Fact Member of Native American Storytellers