of an Exhibition

by Justine Roberts

Published on March 08, 2010, Modified on March 31, 2010

  • Description:

    Storyville is not all that different from many children’s museums. It is a sweet little exhibit that harnesses the power of kids’ imaginations and solicits spontaneous storytelling and character development.

    The space consists of a series of small, themed, environments with a fence or gate to create an enclosure. Most are cul-de-sacs and back up against a wall so the main circulation space is in the center. Each area has a fairly literal looking storefront – grocery store, house, post office, theater, skyscraper, back yard – creating a “town square” setting. The colors are fairly typical reds, blues, greens, and yellows. Inside each of these “buildings” are props including blocks, magnets, puppets, rulers, toy food, costumes . . . you get the idea.

    But Storyville is not a children’s museum. It is a wing of a public library in suburban Baltimore, MD. This gives the activities a different context. There is a limited range of play styles in the space – primarily imaginative play sprinkled with literacy, theater arts and numeracy components. There is not much constructive play, problem solving, aesthetic exploration, science, tinkering, or invention. I usually find this kind of narrow experience frustrating because it limits the age range the space appeals to, and because my own kids don’t love strictly imaginative play experience. But I found it less of a problem in this setting. It felt like focus, and it made sense. That in turn made me feel like I understood what to do and I could help my kids when they seemed stuck.

    Another difference: Storyville is explicit about parental participation. As you enter, a staffer gives you instructions to “stay with your children and interact with them”. I suspect that adults expect to engage with their children at the library. After all, they are going to the library to get books to read to their kids. So the expectations may be different here for both the organization and patrons. It was a surprisingly refreshing departure and, more importantly, it seemed to work.

    The library also has a rare ability to manage crowds in Storyville. The staffer at the gate hands out numbers and tracks how many people are in the exhibit. The library does not seem uncomfortable telling people to do something else and come back later. In this way, Storyville functions something like a special exhibit would in a children’s museum except that it is free.

    Of course there are things they could have done more with. In addition to my disappointment over the richness of the visitor experience I think they missed an opportunity to thread Storyville into the stacks of the library as a whole, and to enliven the browsing experience. And they have not thought of a way to offer visiting hours outside the library schedule.

    But overall I think it is a very interesting expansion of a library’s core services. Storyville is not in a wealthy community with a lot of resources. This exhibit is a playful, print-rich, family-oriented environment that provides opportunities for engagement in literature and narrative arts. And it works – I saw a mommy-and-me group meeting in the tot spot for their weekly outing, and lots of the people we saw there had planned their day around this visit. So Storyville, by drawing on the lessons of children’s museums and by mimicking their strategies directly, is able to extend the library’s services beyond book-borrowing and lap-sits. In fact, this small, not very original exhibit, is a key to repositioning the library as a family destination that promotes playful learning, and as the hub of a community of learners that starts at birth and follows families throughout their lives.

Latest Comments (2)


by Dave Stroud - March 10, 2010

I particularly notice the fact that this an exhibition experience in a different, yet related, venue. The setting seems to contribute to this, and so makes me think about the settings of the work I am currently engaged in. Thanks for sharing this.


Library play?

by Patricia Guerrero knight - March 19, 2010

It would be great if one of their “store fronts” was, in fact a library :) I imagine this is also great way to engage children who have a hard time sitting still long enough to finish a book during story time, in the library process, in a positive experience they will link to their library visit.

thanks for the review!

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