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Penn Libraries News

How the Penn Reads Literacy Project is Imagining a World Where Everyone's Story is Told

On MLK Day, children and their families were invited to the Penn Libraries to celebrate the power of storytelling.

Children sit around a large table coloring with colored markers.

On most Monday mornings, the sixth floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, home to the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, is a quiet place. You can usually find students, faculty, and staff lounging on chairs and couches in front of the large windows overlooking the quad, and scholars of all types examining special collections in the Kislak Center reading room. Sometimes a lively class or an engaging lecture is hosted in the nearby Lea Library or the Class of 1978 Orrery Pavillion. But on the whole, it’s a site of serious academic study. 

Not so on Monday, January 16, when the space was filled with young children and their families, including infants and toddlers, there to celebrate storytelling in all its forms. Planned by the Penn Reads Literacy Project as part of the University of Pennsylvania Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, this unique event invited children and their families to imagine a world where everyone’s story is told. While this particular event is a new venture for the Penn Libraries, it is just one of the many ways that library staff have worked to serve Philadelphia families through the power of storytelling. 

The Penn Reads Literacy Project has taken a wide variety of forms since its inception nearly a decade ago, but its central premise has remained the same: to use Penn’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service to improve literacy in Philadelphia and expand access to multicultural children’s books. In its earliest iteration, coordinated by the former editor of The Almanac Marguerite Miller, it was often called the “Books on Tape Project” after the once-ubiquitous forerunner to the modern audiobook. At this annual event, volunteers from across the Penn community were asked to come to campus to record themselves on cassette tapes reading from a selection of children’s books. These books were then donated to preschools and daycare centers across Philadelphia.  

“They say that MLK Day isn’t a ‘day off.’ It’s a ‘day on,” says Rachelle Nelson, the Penn Libraries Resource Management Coordinator, who volunteered as a reader for many years. By 2015, she was working with Miller to collect donations and coordinate volunteers, too. Soon, she began to think about changes that needed to be made to the project. Up until this point, the Libraries had not been officially involved, though many staff members donated or volunteered. Nelson wanted to change that. 

She was also keenly aware that “books on tape” were becoming obsolete. “I remember trying to explain to a student volunteer how to make a cassette tape recording,” Nelson says. “They kept asking, ‘What is this? How do I use this?’” Nelson decided to consult with David Toccafondi and the staff of the Vitale Digital Media Lab to create digital book recordings instead. In 2018, they launched a new and improved program officially named the Penn Reads Literacy Project. Volunteers were encouraged to record their audiobooks using their phones or to use a digital audio recorder provided by Vitale. The Penn Libraries also hosted the event for the first time: instead of hunting down a quiet corner in Houston Hall, participants could record in one of Van Pelt Library’s many study rooms. The project team still asked for physical book donations—now using an online wishlist—and at the end of the project sent both the books and the digital recordings to participating preschools and daycares. 

But as was the case for so many aspects of life, the COVID-19 pandemic required a complete rethinking of the Penn Reads Literacy Project. As MLK Day 2021 approached, those planning the day’s events knew that they would need to create a program that was safe and accessible. 

Thankfully, Nelson was able to find a partner in another library department that was considering parallel questions. In 2019, Gina Pambianchi became the Penn Libraries’ community engagement librarian and was tasked with working with partner K-12 schools and community organizations in Philadelphia to improve school library access and collections. During the early days of the pandemic, she had to consider how her charge to serve school libraries changed when the school libraries themselves were closed. 

Realizing that they were faced with similar challenges, and that they were trying to reach a similar group of educators and parents, Pambianchi and Nelson worked together to build a “virtual bookshelf” of audio recordings that could be shared with daycares, community groups, and schoolteachers, both as part of the Penn Reads Literacy Project, and as part of the larger efforts of the Libraries’ community engagement team. This interactive web page allows users to select a book and hear a recording, either from the Penn Reads “books on tape” archive or from YouTube, where videos of individuals reading children’s book are very common. Penn Reads also continued to collect physical children’s books to share with daycares and schools. The book donation effort even became the official service project of Momentum 2021: The Power of Women, leading to a tripling of donations in 2021 and 2022 when compared to previous years.

Two adults and two children perform a story in front of an audience. One of the adults, wearing a puppet on their hand, is leaping towards the camera while the other adult looks on. The children are both laughing.
Things get very theatrical during the interactive storytelling performance, led by Diane Leslie of the African American Resource Center.

Nelson and Pambianchi knew they would be going back to in-person this year, and they took the opportunity to rethink the program once again. What were new ways that they could reach and engage with children and their families? What if children were not just given other people’s stories to read, but were encouraged to tell their own stories? 

The result was an extravaganza of interactive storytelling. Diane Leslie of Penn’s African American Resource Center, who serves as a member of the Penn Reads planning committee along with Pambianchi and Nelson, led a live, unrehearsed performance that welcomed children in attendance to help her tell a folk tale in which a farmer is given the power to speak to animals, but not without consequences. After taking center stage—sometimes literally!—the participants had the chance to write their own stories, bind them, and even attach a Polaroid author photo.  

“Libraries can be very intimidating, especially academic libraries,” says Nelson. “So when we bring children into an academic library [for an event like this], we’re associating this space with fun. We’re associating it with something that they can hold in their hands.” 

Pambianchi adds, “By hosting it within the Penn Libraries, children are making books while being surrounded by books at the same time. [They can imagine] adding their story to these shelves, to the shelves of their school library, to the shelves in their community.” 

The 2023 Penn Reads Literacy Project event is just one part of this larger effort, joining other new library initiatives that center on children’s literature and literacy. Pambianchi continues to work with K-12 schools in Philadelphia to improve school library collections, and her team also helps to plan and support literacy and storytelling projects outside the classroom—including participating in a book-making event at Mr. Airy’s Lovett Library as part of Reading Promise Week 2022. Back on campus, just last month, the Libraries officially opened a new display featuring an ever-growing collection of award-winning books for children and young adults. 

Still, Nelson notes that we at the Libraries can always find new ways to engage children and their families. “Behind every piece of material there's a story. Bringing that home to kids is a wonderful thing. The more you do that, the more you take away the mystery of the academic library, and the feeling that it’s a space that is ‘hands off.’ No. This is a space where it should be ‘hands on.’” 

The Penn Reads Literacy Project is accepting donations for this month’s book drive through the end of February. See this year’s wishlist to find out how to contribute.