'Virtual Story Time' Offers a New Way to Experience Books

Tennessee State Library and Archives /

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 provided by the library 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 people with disabilities across Tennessee 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.

YouTube video
YouTube video highlighting one participant’s experience with the virtual story time.

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, Tennessee resident who participated in the virtual story time 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. 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, allowing them to engage with the story reader and the other participants.

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 – TLBPH provides participants with a toll-free number so they don’t incur any long distance charges. Sochor said “children and the young at heart” are welcome to join the calls each month. 

erin-savage-tennessee
Librarian Erin Savage reads a book to listeners on the phone during
virtual storytime.

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.”

TLBPH has provided the program scripts from the books You Nest Here with Me and Star Stuff which have been part of the virtual story time program. Check them out for inspiration to bring a similar program to your own state or community.

For information about the program, please contact:

Maria Sochor, Director
Tennessee Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Tennessee State Library and Archives
Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett
403 7th Avenue North Nashville, TN 37243

(615) 741-1171

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