Phone-A-Story: A Complete Guide
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
By Alberto Pellicer, Denver Public Library
My name is Alberto Pellicer and I coordinate Phone-a-Story at the Denver Public Library. Phone-a-Story started at the Denver Public Library in 2003 and since then it has grown to be a multilingual service, adding Spanish, Amharic and Vietnamese to the original English-only options. When dialing the phone number 720-865-8500, customers can currently choose among nine options to listen to stories and songs. There is also a voice mailbox where customers can leave feedback or request what stories or songs they want to hear in the future.
At the beginning of the year, participating staff are assigned specific slots to record and they are reminded with an email the weeks they are supposed to record. Multiple callers can enjoy the service at the same time and each recording is up to 5 minutes, so you can also include promotions or just a general message inviting listeners to enjoy other stories or use other services.
In addition, the Denver Public Library started offering LitLine in March 2020, where adults now can also listen to stories and poems in Spanish or English by calling 720-865-2003.
STEP 1: How to start? (TECHNOLOGY)
My favorite part about Phone-a-Story is that it is all based on a very basic phone system feature that most places have access to. We are actually recording stories and songs as different voicemail greetings each week. There is no software to install, no files to upload and no storage capacities needed. After talking with different library systems about setting up your phone lines, the best advice would be contacting both your IT team and the phone provider. Prices and capabilities might vary depending on if you have to purchase a new line, repurpose an old one and see if you have direct access to this information and the stats generated by the phone system. One way or the other, the ultimate goal would be obtaining the extensions and passwords to be able to record in the different voicemail inboxes.
STEP 2: How do I make this a “sound” service? (LOGISTICS)
In order to coordinate the multiple staff involved in Phone-a-Story we use Google Docs.
These are the different items that people have access to:
Interest Form: Staff and volunteers in the community can sign up for specific storytime levels and languages.
Master Calendar: Once all the forms have been compiled, we create a master calendar for the year and share it with the readers and singers, so they can put it in their agenda and inform us in case a certain date does not work for them.
Phone-a-Story Reminder Email: This is just a template of the email that we send every week with some useful information like the instructions, tips and tricks on how to pick materials.
Instructions: There is a different document for each extension and it contains the extension and passwords to be able to record from any phone in the world.
Tips and Tricks: This content includes all the above in one document and it is shared in the weekly reminder and at the beginning of the year.
STEP 3: This week you are the Phone-a-story Star! (STAFF INVOLVEMENT)
At DPL any staff member that gets their supervisor approval is more than welcome to participate in Phone-a-Story.
By dividing the workload among staff members, most of our readers don’t have to record all the time, which helps us recruit multiple readers and also adds a variety of voices and styles to the service. The average time staff dedicates to record is 15 minutes, including prep time. Although there is a Master Calendar created at the beginning of the year, the week that you are assigned to read you receive a reminder email with the subject “This week you are the Phone-a-Story Star!”.
At DPL we have about 60 people involved, so most people read 6 to 8 times a year. If you speak a second language, you might have around 10 to 12 assignments per year. Coverage, if needed, is provided by colleagues at the same branch or by staff that has volunteered to cover.
STEP 4: Other Voices and Cross-Promotion (GUEST READERS)
Sometimes, when we have a special collaboration with other institutions, one of the ways of promoting it is having guest readers. We have done few events with our friends at the Denver Performing Arts, some authors visiting the library have recorded stories, and more recently three players from the Colorado Rockies baseball team have participated in our program.
It is very easy for guest readers and celebrities to be part of the recordings, as they can use any phone they want. We just share with them the instructions to record and some guidance when picking stories.
We also recently started having people from the community participating as readers and the same process applies. They hear about the opportunities in social media, at the library or from our networks, and once we explain to them how the system works, they get assigned a date and a slot and when we are closer to the date, they receive the instructions and guidance. We never had any issues with external readers, but if that was the case, it would be very simple to change the password, so the benefits of having the community being readers are way higher than the possible risks.
STEP 5: Our fair share (FAIR USE)
Due to the nature of the phone system, we cannot have our recordings stored, shared or distributed outside of Phone-a-story, so everything in Phone-a-story is temporary by definition. That being the case, and the impossibility of using the stories in different venues or formats is a clear form of fair use. We never had any issues with publishers or authors and in several cases, we have actually received compliments.
STEP 6: Is anybody listening? (STATISTICS)
Despite the simplicity of the idea, one of the best features of any phone system is how it tracks data. At the very simple level you should be able to gather how many people call each line per day, which will let you track data based on weeks or months. We started our system in the early 2000s with a couple hundred calls per month and by the time we had to close our buildings to the public because of Covid-19 we were averaging 3,000 per month. That number has gone up to 5,200 during the pandemic. Something very curious about our growth is that each time we added lines and languages, the growth was exponential. We started just with English and then our numbers got a big jump when we added Spanish, and the same happened when we included Vietnamese and Amharic.
But it is not all about the numbers as those might not be reflected in just the numbers on the stats. After years of hearing great stories about how customers were using Phone-a-story, about a year ago we added an actual voicemail where listeners can request stories or leave meaningful comments. It is the perfect way to know that people all over the country are calling and using it in different ways. This is a link with some extra ideas that go far beyond the original purpose https://kids.denverlibrary.org/blog/phone-story-more-just-listening
I am the lucky person that gets to hear all the messages left in our voicemail, and my duties go from figuring out which books children are asking for to calling families to let them know their requests have been fulfilled.
Step 7: Listen up, all of you! (PROMOTION)
The most successful promotion for our Phone-a-Story service is word of mouth and because of how long we have been offering it, many families are aware of it. Our main way of promoting is our Multilingual Business Cards that have the phone number and a short message in English on one side and Spanish, Amharic, or Vietnamese on the other. These cards are a great ice breaker at resource tables in the community and a great example of how we strive to serve everybody in Denver (and beyond?).
We also try to mention Phone-a-Story anytime we talk about Storytime, since it is a service that can be easily accessed from anywhere and in any situation.
If you have made it this far, congratulations, I can see that you really want to start a service similar to Phone-a-Story at your library!
Probably the next thing you want to do is listening to this webinar that the Colorado State Library offered recently:
There, you will find very useful attachments with ideas on how to write your instructions, plenty of FAQ and a list of suggestions to pick materials for Phone-a-Story, plus a deeper explanation and tons of examples of my life as a Phone-a-Story Coordinator.
Once you have watched the webinar, I am more than happy to respond to any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.
Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position or opinion of the Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy organization or the individual committee members.