Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 19
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
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All in a Day’s Work

(Photo by Elizabeth Lemoine)
ONE-OF-A-KIND: “I try to make it something you wouldn’t find anywhere else,” says Dana Sheridan of her work as the Cotsen Children’s Library Education and Outreach Coordinator.

Borough resident Dana Sheridan develops and coordinates programs for children, families, and schools at Princeton University’s Cotsen Children’s Library. She received her PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Virginia, and while her academic career focused on how children learn in informal, non-school environments (particularly museums), her professional passion has always been the design of dynamic hands-on programs for children.

“Dr. Dana,” as she is known to her young constituents, recently won the New Jersey Center for the Book’s “Miss Rumphius Award,” which honors educators “who are stellar at spreading ideas and creative literacy program via the internet.”

Ellen Gilbert

After I graduated, I was casting around for jobs. A friend said to me, “Hey, look at this in Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton — it’s perfect for you.” She was right.

This job is heaven. I’m currently in my fifth year. I arrived here and immediately rolled up my sleeves and started doing things. I would never have thought to look at Princeton University for a job, but this one was a perfect fit. I continue to work as a consultant with museums, science organizations, and, most recently, the Philadelphia Zoo, so I’m still flexing my brain in those different directions. My love of literacy is strong, though, and it’s hard for me to imagine being somewhere different at this point, though I really do miss Charlottesville and central Virginia, where I’m from. I met my husband at the Alderman Library, and we spent a lot of time walking around the University of Virginia campus.

Time off usually means collapsing on the couch with my little boy, Milo, who’s two-and-a-half. I have another baby on the way; I’m six months pregnant. Milo really likes books. My husband worked at the Princeton Public Library before he became a full-time father, so there were many librarians at our baby shower and we got lots of books. The book Milo wanted to see every night before he was even one year old was Cars and Trucks From A to Z, a little apple-shaped book by Richard Scarry. He really likes George and Martha right now, and Little Bear, and Frog and Toad.

I’ve always been a reader. In graduate school, to counter all the academic reading I was doing, I started rereading all my favorite children’s books. I actually prefer children’s literature to adult literature, because I appreciate the simplicity, the creativity, the straightforwardness. So I started reading and never stopped. I love the Princeton Public Library. When we first moved to town, we got library cards before we even got groceries. The minute I saw it, I thought, “we are the luckiest people.”

There really is something about reading to young kids. It’s as much about crowd control as it is about story telling. “Tiger Tales” [a Cotsen reading program for young children] is very different from reading chapter books with older kids. That’s really more about moving the story along.

Credit goes to Mr. Cotsen for his initial vision of this library’s potential. When he donated his rare collections, he also requested a public gallery for children, and outreach programs for children to promote literacy. Princeton complied; admirably, I think. The gallery is open to all, and our programs are open to all and are completely free of charge — every single one of them. People came from Manhattan for our Harry Potter program. People come from Philadelphia for our Saturday programs, and “The Bibliophiles” reaches everywhere.

“The Bibliophiles” was inspired by a correspondence I had with Lloyd Alexander. Two of the books by him that I remembered from being a kid were The Black Cauldron and The Book of Threes, so I revisited those. There was also a book called The Gawgon and the Boy and I read it. I was 26 and I wrote my first letter of appreciation to an author. To my surprise, he wrote back, saying “Yes, I’m glad you liked it; that book is semi-autobiographical.” The last time I wrote to him was to tell him that I got a job at Princeton University and that I would be a Gawgon (teacher) to other kids. My plan was to invite him here to do a program. Unfortunately he passed away, and that’s when I started thinking that there had to be a way to forever record the thoughts, ideas, and stories of the fabulous people behind these memorable books. And that is how the Bibliophiles was born. I interview a few authors a year, and then they are put on our website, so you can click and listen. So these authors are never, ever going to vanish from the website; they will always be there so you can listen to them.

I’m hoping that this website will just build and build and build so that it becomes a resource for teachers, parents, librarians, and aspiring writers. It’s not just the big names; some of them are authors you’ve probably never heard about, so it’s a good way to make them better known.

So I think technology is a good tool, but I’ll always love the printed book. And, it works every time you open it! It’s not going to crash, or drown, or be affected by magnetic surges.

“Princyclopedia” is another program that I came up with. It’s basically a day where we pick a book and we bring it to life through a series of hands-on projects, demos, exhibits, animal shows. It’s very large scale, in Dillon Gym. Every year the book changes, and it’s a good healthy mix of characters, content, and historic context. Last year it was Treasure Island. We actually had a girls’ a cappella group as singing mermaids! And we had the kinds of toys that Robert Louis Stevenson may actually have played with. It’s a lot of fun, it’s educational, too. That was attended by four- to five thousand people, and it’s all free. You will not have to take your wallet out.

This year’s book is The Lightning Thief, so it’s all about Greek mythology. It will be on Saturday, April 9. The details should be coming out very shortly.

Our school programs are available to any kindergarten through fifth grade school within a ten-mile radius. There really is something about seeing a spark in children. It could be a child laughing at story time; it could be a child remembering something very specific that happened in a book two weeks before; it could be a child who spends two hours at Princylopedia talking to re-enactors; or it could be a parent thanking me sincerely for providing a program for their child. It could be children who recognize me as I’m walking around town; or it could be hearing a child talking after a program, saying “I thought that was going to be boring, but it wasn’t boring!” That’s the favorite part of my job.

My blood is 75 percent Bent Spoon hot chocolate. That’s pretty much the elixir that gets me through.

Princeton can be daunting. You walk across campus and there aren’t many public places you can visit; there’s the art museum and the chapel, obviously, and then there’s the Cotsen Children’s Library, which is fantastic. I’m proud to be here.

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