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If Blindness Comes

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National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
You can still sign up, but there may be a gap in service

An NLS cassette playerIf your vision is significantly impaired, you are eligible for free service from the Library of Congress, through the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). They offer a free Braille and Talking Book Library Service which will send out recorded and Braille books through a system of regional libraries. You can have materials mailed to you free of charge by postage-free mail and through the network of cooperative libraries.

The current technology is cassette tapes, played on a special player. The NLS reports that: “Using the special four-track, half-speed NLS format, a tape that would normally play only ninety minutes can play for six hours. The additional playing time helps save money on the number of cassettes and makes books easier to use.”

Since the program’s inception in the early 1930s, this system has worked well. However, the NLS is now planning to develop a way to provide audio books and materials using digital technology and will therefore be phasing out the cassette system NLS hopes that the new system will be portable and easy to use, while still providing a “superior reading experience.”

The National Federation of the Blind is concerned about the timeline for this project and the gap in both time and resources that the change may incur. Recently, John G. Paré, Jr., the Executive Director for Strategic Initiatives at the NFB, testified before the Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch Committee on Appropriations. He said, in part: “The Library of Congress runs the only public library available to blind Americans. This single library serves nearly 800,000 people. The cassette tape is breathing its last breath, and the last Talking Book cassette machine was made over a year ago. The Library of Congress must convert its Talking Book collection to a digital format. To do this, the Library requested an annual appropriation of $19.1 million for each of the four fiscal years beginning in fiscal 2008. Last year this appropriations request was denied, and only $12.5 million was allocated for the digital Talking Book program. Madame Chair, you have indicated that this amount will not change. This means that the digital transition will take six or more years.

The original four-year plan was designed to prevent disruptions in service to the program’s patrons. If the Library of Congress is forced to implement a six-year plan instead, many patrons will experience a significant service gap. Let me explain why.

John PareFirst, at the end of fiscal 2010, the Library of Congress will stop producing cassette copies of books in order to focus on putting the rest of the collection into digital form. But at that time, more than half of the program’s patrons will not have received digital Talking Book players yet, according to the Librarian of Congress. This means that over 400,000 library patrons will not be able to receive any new books at all for up to three years. Just imagine not being able to read a single new book for three years.

Second, the library can only produce about two thousand titles a year (and at most about a thousand copies of each title), representing less than 1 percent of the books published annually. If full funding for the digital transition is not restored, the NLS will have to reduce the number of digital books it can produce in four years from 4.8 million to only 3.5 million–a reduction of 27 percent.

In short, Madame Chair, the reduction in appropriations for the digital Talking Book program will quickly snowball from a minor inconvenience to a complete halt to service for at least half of its patrons. The door to their only public library will be closed.

Blind Americans are aware that this subcommittee must fund many programs. But even in a time of austerity, it is unacceptable for this subcommittee to slash the budget of a unique program that serves a population with no other public library access. Among the many priorities this subcommittee must consider, I respectfully submit that maintaining the only link that most blind Americans have to literacy, information, and productivity is crucial.

On March 19, 2008, eighty-seven of your Congressional colleagues wrote this committee and urged you to “fully fund the digital Talking Book Program through the allocation of $19.1 million for this purpose in FY 2009, as well as the restoration of the $6.6 million left out of the FY 2008 request.”

Blind Americans are not asking this subcommittee to fund the Talking Book program out of pity, but rather out of a sense of fairness and the belief that all Americans should have equal opportunity. Literacy and access to information are not luxuries that can be dispensed with in tough times; they are essential tools for success and productivity. If the members of this subcommittee truly believe that literacy, knowledge, and education are important for all Americans, then you cannot and must not allow blind Americans to be denied access to those tools. Thank you.

For more information, visit the National Library Service at http://www.loc.gov/nls/index.html or call 1-888-657-7323 to connect to a local library. If you are concerned about funding for the program, contact your local members of congress.