Braille Monitor                          November 2019

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The Continued Significance of the National Library Service for the Blind: Expanding Braille and Implementing the Marrakesh Treaty

by Karen Keninger

Karen KeningerFrom the Editor: Karen Keninger is the director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), soon to be renamed as you will see from the article. Ms. Keninger clearly defines the role that the library plays and makes it clear that even with all of the other sources we have for material, nothing replaces our library. She also outlines what the library is doing to take advantage of new changes in technology and the work we must all do together to fully reap the benefits of the Marrakesh Treaty. Here’s what she said:

Good afternoon. I am delighted to be here. It’s a real honor and a privilege to stand here and tell you about the things that are happening in our library. NLS and its network form a free public library service for people who can’t read print. There was a time when it was the only source of accessible reading material that we had, but today that has changed. We have access to Audible, to Bookshare, to Learning Ally, to the internet. We have options, including an expanding trove of commercially available and pretty-well-narrated books. And we can read print titles with a whole bunch of different apps.

So ladies and gentlemen, why is NLS still relevant today? I submit that the reason is precisely because it is our free public library. [applause] Nearly every town in America has a free public library. Why? Why do cities and counties and states and the nation spend tax dollars on the library instead of, say, roads? Well, Franklin Roosevelt put it this way:

To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a nation must believe in three things: it must believe in the past, it must believe in the future, and above all it must believe in the capacity of its own people to learn from the past so that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future. Among democracies through all of the ages and the history of the world, building these permanent institutions such as libraries and museums for the use of all the people—all the people—flourishes. And that is especially true in our own land, because we believe that people ought to work out for themselves and through their own study the determination of their own best interest rather than accept such so-called information as may be handed out by certain types of self-constituted leaders who decide what is best for them.

Libraries are critical to our way of life, and NLS is our free public library. [applause] And it’s accessible. You don’t have to drive to it; you don’t have to have technical skills to use it; you don’t have to pay for it, and you don’t have to go it alone— we have professionals to help you find anything you’re looking for. With over 110,000 titles and counting on BARD, and about 20,000 magazine issues, it holds the content comparable to a mid-sized public library in a community. NLS is relevant because we as blind people have a right and a need for full accessibility to free library services, every bit as much as our neighbors and friends. We have a right to information, and we have a right to self-determination. [cheers, applause]

So what is our free public library system doing today? Let me talk about a couple of things. First of all, we are working on providing a Braille e-reader to the NLS program. [applause] Braille is our literacy medium, just as print is for the sighted. As print has moved into the digital realm, so has Braille, and I believe that every blind person should have access to digital Braille. [applause] So for the past seven years, with tremendous support from NFB and other partners, I have been working to make Braille e-readers part of the NLS program, and we’re on our way. As of today, we have two contracts in place to develop and distribute Braille e-reader technology to our program. [applause] Those contracts are currently under review by the Government Accountability Office, which will be completed later this month. We expect to do the development in the next several months, and by next spring we will be piloting these devices through our network libraries. I’ve been talking about this a long time folks, and this really is happening. We’ll have a limited number of devices and a limited number of libraries to start with because the purpose of the pilot is to refine the machine, make sure it’s what we need. It’s to refine the distribution, the training, the tech support, the maintenance processes, and all the other things that surround this project. We’ll be starting out with 2,000 machines, and we will be selecting a few Braille lending libraries based on their capacities to actually participate in the project. I know that people are interested in whether or not they can sign up to be pilot testers, and the answer is that that will probably be done through the network libraries. We will be providing some of these devices to NFB headquarters for them to give us their feedback as well. [applause]

 So we’re going to have 2,000 devices to start with, and we are requesting funding from Congress from 2020 through 2024 at this point for additional funding to continue to add to the project. We have a long way to go, so we’re going to need a fair amount of funding. But we’ve already had tremendous support on this particular piece of it from NFB, and I know you will continue to help us. I know that Congress is ready to give us the money, so I’m very excited about that.

So what is it going to look like? Initially it’s intended to read NLS books. That's its goal. It will render BRF files and TXT files (and there might be some others; I’m not quite sure where we landed on that.) It will have software that can be updated as time goes on. It's going to have twenty cells, and they’re going to be eight-dot cells. It will have a Perkins-style keyboard, and it will have search functions: bookshelf, bookmarking, all the things you need to read library books. It will have Bluetooth for connectivity to Bluetooth devices. It will have internal storage for standalone functionality and wireless capability so that you could go directly to BARD to download. [applause] If you don’t feel comfortable or don’t have the access to do that, books will also be distributed from the regional libraries on cartridges that will connect to the device, so you’ll have both options.

It will not have a notetaking capability, and it will not have onboard text-to-speech.

We expect that hard-copy Braille will continue for the near future, until we get these devices in place. We expect that we will continue to update the project as we go forward, and eventually we anticipate having hard copy Braille on demand, but we are a long way out from that. So that’s where we are with the Braille e-reader; thank you so much for all of your support as we move forward with this project. [applause]

As you know, the Marrakesh Treaty was ratified, and we are now full members of the Marrakesh Treaty. I wanted to talk a little bit about what impact that’s going to have on NLS and the United States.

The first thing that happened was that, as part of the ratification process, the Marrakesh Treaty Implementation Act was passed last October. That act changed the Chafee Amendment, which we have been using since 1996 to bypass having to ask for permission to create books. It also changed several things. It broadened the type of works we can do to include musical scores without having to ask for permission. It changed the eligibility issue—eligibility used to be dependent on whatever NLS said, but they’ve taken that away from the NLS program to say, “This is who an eligible person is under this amendment in the United States: a person who is blind, a person who has a visual impairment or a perceptual or reading disability that cannot be corrected, or a person who has a physical disability that keeps them from either managing a book or moving their eyes well enough to actually read the book.” So the definition is a little bit bigger, and one of the impacts that I think that’s going to have is that we will have more people with reading disabilities entering the NLS program. [applause] It has also changed the terminology from “specialized format," which we considered to be Braille or talking books, to “accessible format," which broadens the possibilities for the formats we can use. And it has added a separate paragraph that allows for import and export.

But the NLS program itself has another law; that law is our funding legislation, and it tells us how we can spend our money. Really, it often comes down to money, so we need to get our law to conform to the Marrakesh Treaty Implementation Act and the new Chafee Amendment so that we will be able to participate fully in the Marrakesh Treaty.

At this point NLS has submitted legislation which is right now in the Senate Rules Committee undergoing a standard process, and we are hoping to get it out and get a bill number so that we can really start advocating for it. That law that we’re hoping to get changed will give us permission to participate. It will conform our definitions to the definitions in the Marrakesh Treaty, and it will do some other things, one of which is to preserve priority for the blind and for veterans. If we have a lot more people coming into the program, we want to make sure that those of us who are the basic owners of the program will have priority. [applause] There are some other things that it does, but, as we said, we will be hoping to move this forward as soon as we can get the bill number and get it moving forward. We’ll also be changing our regulations to conform to the new laws, so there’s many things going on there.

NLS has been a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization’s project—which started out being called TIGAR, but now it’s called the Global Book Service—which has allowed some exchange of materials. We’ve gained a lot of information through that process, and we are still part of that process. We will be able to continue that on a limited basis. Basically what we are contending is that a one-for-one swap is not abusing our funding legislation, so we’ll be continuing that until we can broaden it. We know that we have need for Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, and a whole lot of different languages. We also know there’s broad interest in our own collection, but for now, as it affects us as patrons of the National Library Service, we will be adding what we can through the Global Book Service, and we will also attempt to fulfill requests specifically from patrons. If you take your requests to your network library and ask them to forward them to us, we will try to find the book for you.

So where do we go from here? Well, the legislation change needs your support. I know that we will have that support. I am very grateful for that. [applause]

Our funding requests are still on the table and will also need continued support. We have two funding requests. We have the one for the Braille e-readers, and we also have one to build out our IT infrastructure so that we can support more people. I know that we can count on all of your support for that as well.

In closing, I want to thank you again and again for your ongoing and proactive support of our free library services. So let us all, through the work of the NFB—and through our own individual efforts—let us all continue to work out for ourselves and through our own study the determination of our own best interests through our public library system. Thank you very much. [applause]

[She starts to leave the stage, exchanges a few words with President Riccobono, then returns to the microphone] Oops, I forgot something else. We are going to be changing the NLS’s name. I have talked with President Riccobono about this. We are changing it sort-of subtly. We are going to be calling it the National Library Service for the Blind and Print-Disabled. [applause, cheers] We hope to make that official in October.

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