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Providing access to reading for all

readingLive Correspondent: The National Library Service for the blind and Physically handicapped celebrates 85 years of providing universal access to the written word. On March 3, 1931,

Congress passed—and President Herbert Hoover signed—the Pratt-Smoot Act, which appropriated $100,000 annually to the Library of Congress “to provide books for the use of the adult blind residents of the United States” and its territories. Eighty-five years later,

what is now called the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has a budget of more than $50 million and makes use of the latest technologies to serve more than 500,000 individuals with the goal of ensuring “that
all may read.”As early as 1878, Thomas Edison envisioned using technology for that purpose. His patent for the phonograph stated that “[b]ooks may be read … by professional reader[s], and the record of such book used [for the] blind ….”

Even though Edison’s proposal did not come to immediate fruition, service to readers who are blind or visually impaired during the past 85 years has followed a technological trajectory of rigid long-playing records, open-reel tapes, flexible disks, cassettes and the latest digital technologies—including smartphone apps.Today,

NLS is at the forefront of emerging technology. NLS launched the BARD Mobile app, which permits patrons to download braille and talking books to their mobile devices from the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) online service.

BARD was launched in 2009, to allow patrons with computer access to download braille and talking books over the Internet at their leisure, as often as they like.Nearly 70,000 users are registered for BARD and about 22,000 of them take advantage of the BARD Mobile app, which provides on-the-go access to tens of thousands of braille and audio books.

“It is like having a library in your pocket,” NLS director Karen Keninger said.Marshaling technology (and in many cases anticipating innovations) is only one way NLS supports its patrons. NLS network libraries play an equally important role. From its inception, the program has been a cooperative effort among federal, state and local agencies.

What began with 19 regional libraries has grown into a national network of 55 regional libraries, 32 subregional libraries, 14 advisory outreach centers and four machine-lending agencies providing seamless service to patrons.“Our partnership with network libraries is a unique model,” said Keninger. “In an era when personalized service is becoming increasingly rare, what network libraries provide is still vital to our patrons.”

Even as technology—both for talking books and braille—migrates towards digital content distribution, serving the 80 percent of visually impaired readers who are not online remains a vital priority for NLS and its network of cooperating libraries.With its ever-growing constituency of readers, NLS will continue to anticipate its patrons’ needs amid rapidly changing technological innovations.

—Stefan Gunther is a writer

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