‘Virtual Story Time’ Offers a New Way to Experience Books

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Story time is a popular tradition 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 administering the program at the Library and Archives 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 are listening, the children prepare crafts that relate to the stories they are hearing.

The Tennessee Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (TLBPH), a division of the Library and Archives, developed the first-of-its-kind program last fall as a way to reach disabled people who might never visit a public library. “Virtual story time” is a program that libraries in other states could eventually adopt in their own communities.

Maria Sochor, TLBPH’s director, said the goal was to give the library’s patrons with special needs access to a service readily available to people with sight at most community libraries. “The feedback we’ve gotten has been wonderful,” Sochor said. “The children are engaging with us during the calls. Children who never would have had a chance to interact with each other have that opportunity.”

That was true for Christian Buchanan, a 6-year-old Woodbury resident who participated for the first time in March. While Christian listened to the story “You Nest Here With Me” being read aloud during the session, he built a bird’s nest out of materials TLBPH sent to him and shared the experience with others on the call.

Lacey Buchanan, Christian’s mother, said TLBPH’s story time sessions help her son learn about the outside world. “Having the phone call and the interactiveness, they are made for him,” Lacey 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 limits and there’s no cost to participate. Sochor said “children and the young at heart” are welcome to join the calls each month.

While participants are learning and developing socialization skills, the program has another obvious benefit. “The thing that makes it work as far as getting children engaged is that we make it fun,” Sochor said.

Secretary of State Tre Hargett, whose office oversees TLBPH 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. They saw an opportunity and created this program to address the specific needs of our patrons. This may not impact a massive population of Tennesseans, but I know this initiative is benefiting the lives of those who call in every month,” said Secretary Hargett said.

Lacey Buchanan is also hoping the idea will catch on, for Christian and other children like him. “I think it would be great if every state had this program,” she said. “This would be a sort of communal thing.”

For information about how to sign up for the program, please visit: http://sos.tn.gov/tsla/lbph

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