Future Reflections April/May/June 1985, Vol. 4 No. 2

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by Duane Gerstenberger

The National Federation of the Blind's notion that blindness is a disability which can be reduced to the level of a nuisance, of course, rests on two critical provisos: proper training and opportunity. While a major portion of the opportunity proviso refers to positive social attitudes, there are several other key factors which make for opportunity. One of the more important of these is the accessibility of reading materials.

For a child to develop into a mature, informed, and literate adult he or she must have access to ideas, facts, theories, attitudes, and vicarious emotional experiences. While the written word perhaps has been neglected somewhat in recent years in favor of other media television, movies, video games, etc.-- an understanding of and the ability to use language still signifies and is part of mature intelligence. Therefore, blind persons--especially blind children--need access to reading material. To a blind person, library service is a critical--often the only--source of reading material. While a sighted person has not only his or her public library but the local book store, newsstands, the dentist's waiting room, and book clubs, to supply him or her with reading material, a blind person cannot expect to get recorded or Brailled literature from these sources.

When one talks about the "library for the blind," generally reference is made to one of the fifty-six regional libraries that are the primary delivery source of books and magazines for blind Americans. While there are other entities involved, the basic unit of the library system is the regional library. Currently, most regional libraries serve a geographical area defined by the state in which they are located. For example, the Maryland State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is responsible for serving blind persons throughout the state of Maryland. It has no real constituency other than eligible borrowers who are residents of Maryland. Two states (Wyoming and North Dakota) do not have a regional library; respectively, blind people in these states are served by the Utah and South Dakota regional libraries. Five states (Caliifornia, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) have two regional libraries--each serving a specific geographical portion of the state. Three non state jurisdictions (District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the virgin Islands) also have regional libraries.

A second significant entity involved with library services for the blind is the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. (NLS). As its title suggests, NLS is a federal program. NLS provides certain materials and services to the regional library: books (discs, cassettes, and Braille), magazines, equipment (talking book machines, cassette machines, and their accessories), catalogs, and support and informational services. NLS does not provide any direct funding to nor exercise any administrative control over the regional libraries. The relationship between NLS and the regional libraries is primarily a cooperative one.

NLS recently published an eighty-five page book entitled Library Resources For The Blind And Physically Handicapped; A Directory With FY 1983 StaTistics On Readership, Circulation, Budget, Staff, And Collections. This directory provides information on a state-by-state basis which will help library patrons utilize their library services more efficiently. Copies are available at no charge from NLS, 1291 Taylor Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20542.

From each regional library, an individual patron should expect two things: service and materials. The quality and the amount of each will vary somewhat significantly from one regional library to another. For example fourteen of the regional libaries do not provide direct loan of Braille materials. They have no Braille collections. Braille readers in these states must get Braille books from another library with whom their own library has contracted for this service. Some regional libraries have developed cooperative relationships with public libraries in their states which then serve as subregional libraries. These subregional libraries usually have machines available for loan and a limited collection of cassette and talking books. Currently there are one hundred and three subregional libraries. However, most regional libraries have not chosen to develop subregional libraries.

Any person who is legally blind or who has visual disabilities that prevent the reading of standard print material is eligible for library service from a regional library. Part of the application process for service from a regional library is the certification by a competent authority of the prospective borrower's visual disability. Competent authority is defined to include doctors of medicine, doctors of osteopathy, ophthalmologists, optometrists, registered nurses, therapists, professional staff of hospitals, institutions, and public or welfare agencies. However, in the absence of any of these certification may be made by professional librarians or by any persons whose competence under specific circumstances is acceptable to the Library of Congress. There are no charges for any service provided by the library for the blind. All but a few of the libraries are administered by public, tax supported agencies.

Library services to the blind have a relatively brief history. Prior to the development in 1825 of Louis Braille's embossed writing system, there really is no significant history of reading material for the blind. Probably the first library service to blind persons in the United States was the lending of embossed books (Braille and several other writing methods ) by the Boston Public Library in about 1868. The first recognition on the part of the federal government that blind people did read, was the passage in 1904 of legislation that allowed embossed reading material for the blind to be sent through the United States mail postage free. The cooperative system of library service described above has its origin in the passage of the Pratt-Smoot Bill by Congress in 1931. This bill created within the Library of Congress a program called the Division for the Blind which had an annual appropriation of $100,000 to produce and circulate to blind adults embossed reading material. Part of this original legislation was the concept of regional libraries for the local distribution of the books. (Incidentally, the $100,000 annual appropriation remained at that level until 1957. The 1984 fiscal year budget for NLS was $30,629,530.) With the invention of the phonograph came recorded reading material which was first available in 1932. Perhaps one of the most significant developments in the area of library services were the 1952 amendments of the Pratt-Smoot Bill which made children eligible for services from the regional libraries. In 1969 cassette books became part of the library program. The Pratt-Smoot Bill now exists as public law 89-522.

Certainly library services to the blind, when viewed on an across-the country basis, are as good today as they have ever been. However, there is tremendous room for improvement. Even the very best regional library pales when compared to a good, small public library. Reasonable library services which should be provided by a library for the blind were first clearly outlined in a speech entitled, "Which Services Are Reasonable to Expect From a Library for the Blind?" by Florence Grannis (now Mrs. Florence Shropshire). In the early 1970's Mrs. Grannis made this presentation to a state convention of the National Federation of the Blind. Following are excerpts from this presentation:

*...It is reasonable to have a courteous, competent, trained, and philosophically progressive staff.

*It is reasonable to expect to have a balanced book collection, to have most of the books that any self-respecting small public library would have--to have some of most types of literature represented--something light, something scholarly, something dirty, something uplifting, something controversial, something for everybody, and to have the specific books which are in the collection be superior representations of their type, e.g. a "reasonable" percent of the total collection should be mysteries, and the mysteries which are selected should be skillfully written...

*The library should have books pertaining to local and state history and books by local authors stressing local people, events, interests and mores.

*A reasonable proportion of the books in the collections should be suitable for children.

*It is reasonable to have some easy way to know which books are available in the collection and to be able to know something about them--some explanation such as printed catalogs and booklists. Ideally, these catalogs and booklists would be transcribed onto tape and in Braille.

*It is reasonable to expect extensive reference service. That is, you should be able to have your questions answered, whether they are "Who are Pavlov and Pavolova?", "What is the value of vitamin C?", "Who won the World Series in 1950?" or a whole world of other handy items.

*It is reasonable to expect to have any bibliographies prepared to order. Ideally, again these should be on tape or in Braille.

*Items should be able to be produced to order on tape or in Braille. Those production facilities should be on hand.

*Braille books should be arranged in some orderly way for browsing, and a convenient and attractive reading area should be provided.

*Competent reader's advisory services should be available: Someone who can suggest books and discuss them in an intelligent way...

*Each borrower should have personal services--the knowledge that he is not a mere listing. The library should be in touch in person, by phone, and by mail and have in and out WATS service. The library should acknowledge and follow up on each complaint and suggestions. If nothing can be done, the patron should be told that. Each library borrower has a right to receive the particular books he asks for in the quantity he wants, when he wants them, not some other book a librarian feels is just as good or the same kind of book, and certainly not what a librarian feels he should be reading instead of what he asks for. If the library does not have the book, a real attempt should be made to obtain it.

*If the consumer really wishes titles selected for him, the library should do it.

*The patron should receive periodicals before they are out of date.

*Books should be in good condition when they are mailed. This means there must be staff to check the condition of each one.

*The library should lend both talking book and cassette machines to its patrons.

*It is reasonable to expect that the librarian will be present at state conventions of the blind, participate in programs at these conventions, have displays, and be available to talk to the borrowers at these conventions.

*The library staff should know their equipment.

Additional services which are reasonable to be able to expect:

*Instructional materials center for the procurement and production of requested textbooks

*A comprehensive selection of titles on blindness (in print) (including periodicals)

*A system for continual personal contact through counselors, telephone pioneers, etc.

*Large type books

*That the Library should be open enough hours, and such hours that most patrons who wish to come to the library will be able to do so

*Braille labeling of tapes

*Being able to send Braille letters and to receive Braille letters in reply

*Knowledge and referral of all types of direct and peripheral services blind people might be interested in...

When Mrs. Grannis made these remarks, she was director of what was then regarded as the largest and best library for the blind in the world; but, as she often pointed out, even that library sometimes fell short of providing all these services, and all the other regional libraries fell woefully short in nearly every service area she noted. Also, that library's collection--the largest of its type in the world-- contained fewer than 35,000 individual titles. Most small, public libraries have over 100,000 titles.

In 1985, library services for blind children and adults are not what they need to be. Literally thousands of titles available in print do not exist in either Braille, cassette, or disc. While NLS has worked to strengthen several weak areas of its collection in recent years, much of that effort has been "catch up" in nature; while older titles were produced as part of this "catch up" activity, new print books were published that were not produced by NLS. (The Children's Collection was one of the weak areas NLS has worked to upgrade.) Some regional libraries produce books not provided by NLS , and this effort helps. Even though new and quicker methods of book production have been developed and additional ones are being explored by NLS and others, the gap between books available from a regional library versus a good public library remains chasm-like. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to the dilemma. No quick fix is available. Even with unlimited resources, NLS and the regional libraries could not provide reasonable (never mind high-quality) library service. Neither the books (the materials--the essential part of any library service) nor the mechanism to produce them with any speed exist.

Editor's Note: When I first read this article, I had two reactions. I first thought it was excellant; very informative. But then I was disturbed by the conclusion. It seemed so, well, negative, so bleak. After all, one of the trademarks of Future Reflections is our APRIL/MAY/JUNE 1985

positive, upbeat tone. But the truth is the truth. We cannot solve problems by ignoring them or pretending they aren't as difficult as they really are. Does that mean that the problem of building quality library services for the blind that are equal to services available to the sighted is an impossible task? Or does it mean that the solution is so far in the future that there is little point in concerning ourselves with the problem now? NOT AT ALL!

There is an old riddle that goes like this: How do you eat an elephant? Why, one bite at a time, of course.

In his 1983 NFB banquet speech, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan put the history of the progress of the blind into a perspective that we would do well to consider. He said:

When the blind came to organize in 1940, the situation was about as bad as it could possibly be. It was almost static. It was worse than static, for there was enough motion to tantalize but not enough to encourage or stimulate hope. At the pace of 1940 it would have taken generations (perhaps centuries) for the blind to achieve meaningful lives and real opportunity...

Then everything changed. Dr. Jacobus tenBroek and a handful of others organized the National Federation of the Blind. Suddenly it was not centuries but decades--and yes, something for the blind of that generation, something for the blind then alive. In the beginning the force of inertia worked against us (things at rest tend to remain at rest); but pressure was applied, and the acceleration was noticeable and immediate...

Today we are moving with a mighty force. It would take as much pressure and effort to stop our progress and push us back to 1940 as it has taken to get us where we are....

Today, we are not in 1940, nor will we ever be there again. Neither have we arrived at our goal. We are in Mid passage.

If you would like more information about what the National Federation of the Blind is doing to improve library services and/or would like to join us in "eating the elephant", contact: Sharon Gold, Chairperson, National Federation of the Blind Committee on Library Services, 5982 South Land Park Drive, Sacramento, California 95822. Telephone (916) 424-2226.

For literature analyzing library services and examining current problems write to: National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230.

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