Cotsen Children's Library adapts and expands programming to a virtual environment


Museum Gallery

Cotsen Children's Library launched its most recent virtual escape room in September 2020 that involves five well-known scientists.


While Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University Library closed its physical doors in spring 2020, Cotsen has continued, adapted, and expanded its free programs and services for children, including one-on-one writing feedback sessions, drawing sessions, virtual escape rooms, a writing contest, an author interview webcast, and creative blog. Dana Sheridan, Education & Outreach Coordinator, and Katie Zondlo, Education & Outreach Assistant, share how they created silver linings amidst the pandemic. 

How has the transition to a virtual environment impacted your work and Cotsen’s programming for children? 

Sheridan: It has been sad to not see our little patrons. For me and Katie, those voices of children were daily and that being gone has been tough. However, we're really proud of the virtual programs we've developed, and what we're learning from this new format. This experience will make us stronger and might even give us some lasting programs we didn’t expect.

Zondlo: Now, we not only have our local community, whom we love and adore, but we also have a worldwide community that we hadn't had the opportunity to meet. That's really exciting.

Why did you develop the new program, One-to-One, which offers constructive feedback to writers ages 9-17 through Zoom or phone calls?

Sheridan: Speaking to friends, family, patrons, and community members, the two things that came across most clearly for me is that kids are missing socialization. And yet socialization is something that we cannot do safely during a pandemic. And so my solution to that was to make myself digitally available one-on-one, in keeping with Cotsen’s mission of literacy, illustration, and writing.  

One-to-One is a revitalization of First Draft, which offers constructive writing feedback via email. Now writers can schedule Zoom or phone calls with me for individual sessions. I see these writers get super excited. I’m working with one girl who’s on the sixth chapter of her novel. There’s another little girl I worked with last week, who is 10 or 11, and she sent me her edits right away within hours of our meeting. 

I try not to concentrate on, “Well, there’s a typo here.” Instead, I concentrate on, “How well do you know your characters? What's their motivation? How would you feel if you came home and found your parents were kidnapped? Go to your front door in your house and pretend; then write it.”

I’m trying to show them that writing right from your heart and your experiences or writing from your imagined experience – is powerful. At the center of it is the writer, the voice. 

I am very honored that I get to do this. It's not only great for the kids. I also find it hugely satisfying. 

You also adapted the escape rooms to a virtual environment. Tell us about that.

Zondlo: We’ve done three live, in-person escape rooms at different locations on the Princeton campus. The last one was in February 2020. I like riddles and puzzles, so creating these virtual escape rooms kind of came naturally to me. I reached out to a librarian in Pennsylvania who created a Harry Potter escape room that went viral, and I asked her for tips and guidelines. 

Instead of Harry Potter, I thought, let's revisit our original in-person escape room and create a virtual Sherlock Holmes mystery, which is about a missing tiger that escaped from the London Zoo.

We also have a Treasure Island escape room, and the newest one introduces five famous scientists, from all walks of life Marie Curie, Benjamin Banneker, Galileo. You have to take puzzles and clues, and piece it all together to solve. The scientist escape room has been my biggest labor of love. It took me almost 15 hours to build.

Why are these escape rooms important?  

Zondlo: I always have my son and my nieces and nephews test the escape rooms before I launch them. My son tells me that it’s a great brain break. It's something different. It's interactive and challenging. And it's a way for him to redirect his attention from all the bad stuff that's happening in the world. I think families are also looking for that kind of escape, and it is something they can do together that's fun and entertaining. 

How have your audiences changed? 

Zondlo: We’ve had over 11,000 hits on our virtual escape rooms. Last week, the Sherlock Holmes escape room got over 150 hits from India. There was a classroom that found it, and I received an email from one of the students at the school. I’ve also gotten emails from librarians, teachers, and parents. There was a grandmother who emailed me every week while she and her grandson slowly worked on the Sherlock Holmes escape room together. I enjoyed helping them and following their progress. 

Sheridan: For me, I can’t track where everyone is writing from, but I can tell when I have to adjust for a time zone -- then I know I'm talking to someone in Utah or Louisiana. I had one child mention that she was in Thailand. I also have a Zoom coming up with a Chicago public school preschool classroom. Our blog has always been very far reaching, but the escape room viewership is unprecedented. It’s fantastic, but of course it's not the same as us getting to see these community kids every week. 

Zondlo: This past spring, we also received over 200 submissions to our annual 350 for 50 writing contest, which is the most we’ve ever had. In years past, most entries were from New Jersey, and we’d get one entry from New York, maybe one from Pennsylvania. But this year we got interest from all those states, and from Maine, Colorado, and Illinois. We also added an additional age group for 15-16 year olds. Those entries were really incredible. 

You also run a blog and webcast. How have those changed over the summer? 

Sheridan: I'm working on a blog series called studio snapshots, where I reach out to illustrators and have them take a few photos of their working studio and explain why it's significant. I'm excited to reach out to a diversity of artists and illustrators to give them a much-deserved spotlight, stage, and audience. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share? 

Sheridan: We’re always open to new ideas! If there’s something you’d like to see, please reach out to us. 

Learn more about Cotsen Children’s Library’s virtual programming and services here. Cotsen is also home to a vast collection of illustrated children's books, manuscripts, original artwork, prints, and educational toys from the 15th century to today through the generosity of Lloyd E. Cotsen '50. 

Published October 1, 2020. 

Interview by Emily Judd, Communications Coordinator

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Director, Library Communications