Future Reflections Summer 1990, Vol. 9 No. 2

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by Edith L. Willoughby

From the Editor: Not long ago I received a letter and a copy of the following article from one Edith L. Willoughby, librarian at the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia. She had read the article I had written about library services for the Spring/Summer issue of Future Reflections, and thought I might find her article, which had been published in the Catholic Library World magazine, of some interest. I did.

Now, I honestly do not know if the Overbrook library is, when compared to others of its kind, superior or just average in the services it provides. But it seemed to me that the article would stimulate some thought about what we should expect from library services for the blind --especially services for blind children. It could also be used for comparisons. And who knows, perhaps other librarians or teachers or parents would be moved to share with us information, ideas, and expectations about library services for blind children in their school or community. Here is the article as reprinted from Catholic Library World.

Overbrook School for the Blind, an approved private school, was chartered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1834. It has been at its present location in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia since 1898. The building, designed by the architectural firm of Cope and Stewardson, is a rare example of Spanish Mission architecture on the East Coast.

The library, situated in the main building between two garden cloisters, is easily accessible from all points of the campus. On two floors, it comprises a professional room, a large print room, space for "easy" books for preschool students, a reference room, listening rooms, and a reading room. The second floor mezzanine is accessible by two flights of stairs and an elevator.

-Serving a heterogeneous population

In this setting, the library at Overbrook serves a heterogeneous population, with a wide range of needs, skills, and abilities. The most recent addition to the program is an international school, now in its fourth year. This school year, students from eleven countries are studying, primarily, English as a Second Language, and computer technology. The preschool Department, which works with children ages 2-6, is a heavy user of thelibrary. The Multi-handicapped Department serves the needs of children who have other handicaps in addition to blindness. The Secondary School prepares students for college as well as for the work force.

Confronted with the challenge of a school population of this nature, the library's goal is to broaden, enrich, and stimulate the teaching learning experience for each member of the school staff and student body.

-Reading in a library for the blind

In a school for the blind, the library collection must reflect the manner in which the blind student reads. Curriculum-oriented Braille books form the basis for the collection, augmented by large print and "regular" print books. Because all blind people are eligible for membership in the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, the Overbrook School Library is able to participate in interlibrary loans across the country. Many titles are found in the library in both print and Braille so that teachers with students who are totally blind as well as students with some usable vision may require both to read the same book. Books also are available on audiotape cassettes and records. The so-called "talking books" are not popular with the students and are being phased out of production in favor of the easy-to-carry and easy-to-operate audiotape cassettes. Most students who enjoy reading as a recreational pursuit prefer reading Braille to listening to books on tape or record.

In the "easy" section, books are available in print, Braille, and print-Braille, a combination of both media on the same page. With this latter medium, a sighted person can read the story to a blind child, who, although he or she cannot read Braille yet, can become familiar with the Braille dots. Some "easy" books also have pages which the young reader may "scratch and sniff to add to the enjoyment of the story.

-Reference works for research

The reference section of the library contains the usual standard reference works in both print and Braille. Considering that the Thorndike Junior Dictionary is 22 Braille volumes, one can understand the need for a considerable amount of shelf space. Dictionaries and encyclopedias, available on audiotape cassettes, are specially indexed to find the necessary entries; most students quickly learn to operate the special equipment required. Some reference works are available only in standard print format and, therefore, must be read to the student. A print enlarger, operated through a closed-circuit TV will enlarge print up to 60 times; it also is available in the reference area. To the visually impaired person, the difference between reading and misreading often depends on the level of image contrast and quality. The screen image may be switched from positive to negative for optimal contrast, providing greater user comfort when reading or writing.

The Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature (Abridged) is available only in very small print, and most visually impaired students need help finding the information necessary to locate a magazine article. Once found, however, the article may be in Braille, on disc, or in print. The library subscribes to magazines in all three formats, whenever possible, in order to serve the maximum number of students, staff, and teachers. The library is the repository for a number of professional journals which specialize in education of the handicapped and visually impaired, including a complete run of Journal of Vision Impairment and Blindness (formerly Outlook for the Blind) dating from 1907 to the present.

The professional room contains books for both professional study and recreational reading. Beneficiary of a legacy from the estate of Elizabeth Roe Dunning, an early literature teacher at Overbrook, the fiction collection is a gem of the best books published over several decades. A part of the professional library, but housed in another area, is a "blindiana" collection, dating from the turn of the century to the present, which includes a copy of The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, autographed by both Helen and her teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy.

-Software, Braille, and Talking Computers

The library maintains and dispenses the same kinds of hardware usually found in school library media centers, i.e., record players, tape players, film strip projectors, overhead projectors, and film projectors. The record players and tape players both have adapters for blind people.

Of special interest to most visitors to the library is the Kurzweil Reading Machine. Invented in the 1970s by Raymond Kurzweil of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the machine enables blind people to "read" books, journals, and other printed material not available in Braille or on tape. Kurzweil programmed it with 1,000 rules of English pronunciation and 1,500 exceptions. Using advanced technology, the KRM converts almost all typewritten or typeset material into easily-understood speech. Besides reading, the KRM functions as a calculator capable of performing complex logarithmic, trigonometric, and exponential functions. It provides voice output for computers, speaking word-by-word, letterbyletter, or number-by-number. It can be used to convert printed material into the digital signals required to drive Braille printers. A programmed course of study, available both in Braille and on tape, is used by capable Overbrook students, aided by the librarian, to learn how to use this machine in order to become more independent in the quest for information.

Televisions and VCRs are available to the staff and students at Overbrook School Library, and are used for multiple purposes. The most recent acquisition is a caption master VCR, that is, a VCR recorder which has been engineered to record and play "closed- captioned" TV shows and tapes. This VCR has a special feature which "burns in" the closed captions on tapes which have been recorded off air in order to have the captions permanently on the tapes. The National Caption Institute (NCI) provides over 90 hours of daily network programming, as well as over 1,500 films in video format with closed captioning. It is anticipated that the segment of the population at Overbrook which is hearing impaired as well as visually impaired will benefit from this new piece of equipment.

TVs and VCRs have many popular uses at Over brook. ESL teachers play television programs to teach American idioms and culture. Students of sign language borrow tapes to review their lessons. Literature teachers use tapes of movies and plays, and the residential students enjoy recreational movies on weekend evenings.

-Tactile Learning

The Overbrook library uses any means available or devisable to enable students with visual handicaps to learn. Puppets are used to enhance stories for younger children; hand puppets, finger puppets, and character dolls represent story characters.

For many years, the Overbrook School for the Blind has maintained a Touch and Learn Center. Stuffed and mounted birds and animals (including the recently-acquired raccoon, opossum, squirrel, rabbit, shrew, and crow) are suitable for handling and allow the children to "see" the animals which may live on the urban campus. Recordings of bird songs are useful for accompanying the examination of birds from the Touch and Learn Center.

The 1987 celebration of the Bicentennial of the Constitution was made more meaningful for the students by providing them with models of Independence Hall and Carpenters' Hall and Brailled maps of Independence Historical Park. Likewise, copies of the Constitution were made available in both Braille and large type.

-Other Media Available

The library uses computers both for instruction and to produce library catalog cards. This is a considerable help because Braille readers must have a card catalog in Braille, which is a duplication of the main printed card catalog. Printed notices or lists which might be given to students or teachers in a regular school library must be issued in Braille as well. The Romeo Braille Printer is a new machine which is helpful for this purpose; it is available for use by the library staff, even though it is not housed in the library. The computers used by the students are equipped with an Echo voice synthesizer that tells them what is on the screen. Special software must be used for this.

Toys and games are available for circulation to teachers, students, and houseparents. Many of the games are Brailled, including Monopoly sets and playing cards.

-That little extra effort...

To provide all of the standard services offered by any "ordinary" school library media center requires a little extra attention and effort by the library staff at the Overbrook School for the Blind. The needs of each student and teacher must be assessed individually, and supported by whatever means possible --right down to the little Brailled book markers with fuzzy book worms attached which are given to the preschoolers!

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