Technology for Reading Long Embraced by the Blind and Physically Handicapped
While many readers debate whether reading a book on paper is that same as reading one on an electronic device, readers who are blind and physically handicapped have made use of machines to read for many years.
The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) started serving blind adults in 1931 and expanded its reach to blind children in 1952. Ten years later, the NLS started a program to provide blind musicians with music. The NLS program is funded by Congress and any U.S. citizen living in in the U.S. or abroad that has a temporary or permanent visual or physical limitation is eligible to participate.
Once someone is enrolled in the NLS Talking Books program, the NLS will send them digital audio players, audiobooks, and audio magazines at no charge. Patrons can also visit regional libraries with these materials. Regional libraries are located in almost every state.
inReads spoke with newly appointed NLS director Karen Keninger. Keninger arrived in DC at the end of March 2012 from Iowa where she was director of the Iowa Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped from 2000-2008.
inReads: How did you first get acquainted with the NLS and the services it offers?
Karen Keninger: When I was seven years old, I started using NLS materials from my regional library. I started with 331/3 RPM records and my Braille books came through the mail wrapped in brown paper and string.
inReads: What about CDs?
Keninger: We never did eight tracks or CDs. We skipped those two formats.
It takes a lot of work to make the switch between formats. CDs are frail. We waited for the flash cartridge option to have something more durable. It’s a specifically designed card with a flash chip in it. There are no moving parts—this is important for those of us who have to maintain the books and the machines.
inReads: Where can people in the DC metro area go to use NLS materials?
Keninger: We have a regional library in DC in the Martin Luther King Library. The DC Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is in Room 215.
inReads: Who produces the audio magazines?
Keninger: We have three main contractors who do the bulk of them. Right now they’re putting them on cassette and online. We have one magazine that comes from England, The Economist, which is commercially produced.
inReads: Do they read the magazine ads along with the articles?
Keninger: They do not read the ads. The law we operate under does not allow us to do advertising, so they just read the articles.
inReads: How is the NLS being impacted by the bigger changes in the publishing world, such as the growth of the e-book industry? Will you increase the materials that are available online?
Keninger: For a certain segment of the population who is tech-savvy, they can go get e-books on their own. We’re not losing patrons; it’s just that they can get more.
A lot of people we serve are older—they can’t or aren’t interested in getting e-books. Except for the ones who have grandkids who are happy to download talking books for them.
We constantly expand our online offerings. We’re also looking at other options beyond what we’re doing right now.
inReads: How are books selected for the NLS? Do you ever decide to produce a book because you get a number of requests for it?
Keninger: We base decisions on collection development policy. We can’t have just one kind of book. The books we select have to have positive reviews in well-known industry publications like School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. We try to get bestsellers because our patrons want to read the stuff everyone is talking about.
We have what you might see in a medium-sized public library. We are trying to meet a community’s needs but our community is national. That said, we do have more on disabilities than the average library.
We acquire 2,000 audiobooks and 500 Braille books per year. Some regional libraries also have the capacity to record materials. Our regional libraries are very responsive to patron requests.
inReads: Can you tell me about some of the books/services that are most popular among NLS users?
Keninger: It depends on what part of the country you’re in. In some spots, religious fiction is popular. Where I come from it’s Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts on the women’s side and authors like Louis L’Amour on the men’s side. The Northeast is more eclectic.
inReads: What are you reading now?
Keninger: Because I’m new to area, I’m reading a book that’s a walking tour of DC.
inReads: Can you get talking books on an iPad or iPhone?
Keninger: We have a group who are anxious to read talking books on an iPhone. That’s in the future. Making an iPad app for downloading talking books is a hot priority around here. Accessibility is built into the iPad and the iPhone—you can turn on a synthesized voice or make the screen bigger and change the contrast. Most people don’t know about these settings, but they are there for those of us who need it. And it comes with the iPhone—you don’t have to pay extra.