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How many librarians does it take to read a story? Definitely more than one if it is for the Library of Virginia’s Dial a Story program! Debuting on July 14, this resource for public libraries and their patrons offers a new story, in both English and Spanish, each Wednesday. Users can dial 833-690-0646 to hear the stories.

Dial a Story, offered 24/7, presents an analog opportunity for strengthening reading readiness using picture books and telephone technology. We have had close to 400 calls since the program’s inception with a high of 73 calls on July 21. The inspiration for this resource came from a webinar from the Denver Public Library, offered in April 2020. Their shared information provided a solid base for moving forward with our state-wide plan.

As a state agency, the Library of Virginia is required to use Verizon technology. Verizon provided a toll-free number with a voice mailbox system with a call-flow, test platform, and training. With these tools, Dial a Story was born! Multiple factors had to be considered as we planned to implement this project.

The first step was book selection. The five-minute limit for the voice mailbox presented a bit of a challenge. I spent many an afternoon with a pile of picture books and a stopwatch app reading book after book to make sure it could be read within the five-minute constraint, including an introduction and a closing. The dogs in my house got very comfortable with their own special story times.

Another consideration was the book’s availability in both English and Spanish. I scoured publishers’ websites, Amazon, library catalogs and other dial-a-story sites for book titles that are available in either a bilingual format or published in Spanish. I browsed the Williamsburg Public Library’s Junior Foreign Language shelves. I asked all volunteer readers for recommendations. The final selections are a rotation of four categories: recent picture books; fairy tales and folktales; books highlighting equity, diversity and inclusion; and classic picture books.

It was also a challenge to identify books that had storylines not dependent on illustrations. This is somewhat of a contradictory concept for picture books, where the blending of words and illustrations is so integral. Fortunately, fairy tales and folk tales lend themselves to the oral tradition. And many picture books fit the bill as well.

A final challenge was obtaining publisher permission for the books chosen. Several publishers have extended their open licenses for online story time and classroom read-aloud videos beyond August. Penguin Random House, Harper Collins, and Peachtree have extended their permissions for closed or livestream story times, and recordings, until December 31, 2021. Other publishers require notification of how the book is going to be used and how long it will be stored, if at all. And some require a full submission request before granting permission.

The absolute best part of the project is the many volunteers who have offered their reading and language expertise to read the Spanish versions of the chosen books. An initial inquiry resulted in more than 25 volunteers signing up to read the stories in Spanish. As the program progressed, volunteers offered to read the English versions of the stories as well. I appreciate the many volunteers and am happy to make new connections around the state. A shared Google doc keeps track of readers, books, and any schedule changes.

A webinar training was offered in June. For those who couldn’t attend, I provided the webinar recording or an individual training. Another training will be offered in September or October. Every Monday, I send out a reminder email message to the reader or readers for the week with the recording instructions attached. Every Wednesday I eagerly await the recording of the new book and listen. I like to think I join children around the Commonwealth waiting for each week’s new story.

No previous experience is required except a willingness to share an enthusiastic reading in a different format. Youth services staff and those with readers’ theater experience are usually naturals. It also helps to have a quiet location with no interruptions and be able to turn pages quietly. The time commitment is minimal, just enough to practice reading the story to become familiar with the story, the pacing, and any unusual pronunciations and then finding time to record the story any time on Wednesday. Sometimes the recording may take a few tries. In my first week of reading, I kept reading “chocolate-covered puppies” instead of “chocolate-colored puppies,” resulting in several re-recordings.

We started with a soft launch to work out any kinks in the system. Now that Dial a Story is running smoothly, it’s time to look ahead. The Library of Virginia will have print materials forthcoming and will actively promote the program on social media. Books and readers are scheduled through the end of 2021. Look for a call for new readers and book recommendations in the fall. And remember to call 833-690-0646 and share the number with friends and family!

Sue La Paro

Children's & Youth Services Consultant

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