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Breaking Ground 98 - Story Time with a Twist

by Maria Sochor, Director, Tennessee Library for Accessible Books and Media, Tennessee State Library and Archives
a woman sits in a room with a children's book on a table in front of her; she is speaking into a conference phone speaker
Librarian Erin Savage reads a book to listeners on the phone during virtual storytime.

Story time is popular at public libraries throughout the country, but story time events at the Tennessee State Library and Archives have a special twist. Instead of performing with groups of eager children crowded at her feet, the librarian is reading books aloud in mostly empty rooms.

The audience – children with vision impairments or other disabilities that make reading standard print books difficult – listen to the stories each month via telephone conference call. While they’re listening, the children make crafts that relate to the stories they are hearing, mailed to them ahead of time by the librarian. Each month’s event also includes a song and simple movements that can be easily modified to meet each child’s needs.

The Tennessee Library for Accessible Books and Media (TLABM, formerly Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped), a division of Library and Archives, developed the first-of-its-kind program as a way to reach people with disabilities across Tennessee who might never visit a public library. “Virtual story time” is a program that libraries in other states could adopt in their own communities.

The goal of this program is to give the library’s patrons with disabilities access to a service readily available to people with sight at most libraries. The feedback from these efforts has been wonderful. The children are engaging with us during the calls; children who never would have had a chance to interact with each other now have that chance. 

That was true for Christian Buchanan, an eight-year-old Woodbury, Tennessee resident who is featured in a video about this project. You can find the video by searching YouTube for “virtual story time TN” or visiting the Secretary of State’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/c/sectrehargett. While Christian listened to the story, “You Nest Here with Me,” being read aloud, he built a bird’s nest out of materials TLABM sent to him and shared the experience with others on the call. The phone lines aren’t muted, so participants are able to speak up on the phone, just as they would if they were meeting together. This allows them to engage with the story reader and other participants.

Lacey Buchanan, Christian’s mother, said TLABM’s story time sessions help her son learn about the outside world. “Having the phone call and the interactiveness, they are made for him,” Buchanan said. “It’s not that their disabilities are highlighted, but their needs are highlighted. A need is getting met. For him to get to be conversational, to me, that’s the best part of it.” 

The Tennessee program has no age limit, and there’s no cost to join. TLABM gives participants a toll-free number so they aren’t charged long-distance fees. Children and the “young at heart” are welcome to join the calls each month.

While participants are learning and developing social skills, the program has another obvious benefit: it’s fun. Secretary of State Tre Hargett, whose office oversees TLABM and the Library and Archives, said he hopes Tennessee’s program can be a model for other “virtual story times” across the country. “I am constantly inspired by the creativity of the people who make up our department,” he said. “They saw an opportunity and created this program to address the specific needs of our patrons. I know this initiative is benefiting the lives of those who call in every month.”

For more information about this program, please call 800-342-3308.