Braille Monitor                                                    March 2009

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Interview: Kurt Cylke on the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

by Tom Yee

From the Editor: The following interview is reprinted from the Library Services Journal, Fall 2008, Volume I, Number 3. The interviewee is our friend and colleague in the blindness field, Frank Kurt Cylke. The article is reprinted with permission:

Tom Yee, assistant chief of the Cataloging Policy and Support Office of the Acquisitions Access Directorate, recently talked with Kurt Cylke, director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically handicapped, on his thirty-nine year Library career and the services provided by the NLSBPH.

Kurt, what brought you to LC in 1970?

Let me go back to two things. One, believe it or not, was a lifelong dream that some day I would work at the Library of Congress. I never thought that I would be involved with library services for the blind and physically handicapped, but I wished to be at the Library of Congress. The second thing was my meeting with two individuals who stand out to me as mentors, friends, and colleagues.

In March 1968 I came to Washington to run the Library Research and Development Branch at what was then the Office of Education, now the Department of Education. I ran that branch for about a year or a year and a half. And in that time I came into contact with two people whom I called “the Saints”: Dr. Elizabeth Stone, Betty Stone, who was the dean of the Catholic University library school, and Paul Howard, who was the founder of the American Library Association office in Washington, librarian at the Department of the Interior, and also of what is now called FLICC, the Federal Library and Information Center Committee, but was at that time called the Federal Library Committee. I was doing business with him; we made grants and awards, and so forth, and there were various studies that brought me in contact with both Paul and Betty. When Paul was retiring, he called and asked if I was interested in replacing him at the Library of Congress as the head of the Federal Library Committee. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but at first I said no. I felt that I needed a couple of years’ more experience at the Office of Education. But as I thought about the matter, it became clear that I didn’t really have a future at Education. So I made a call back the next day and said, “Yes, I’d like to come.” After one thing and another, I met Quincy Mumford, John Lorenz, and Elizabeth Hamer—they interviewed me. I remember specifically being interviewed at the Monocle, a Capital Hill restaurant.

Wow, a lunch interview with the librarian, deputy librarian, and assistant librarian of Congress! What was that like?

It was one of the most interesting interviews I ever had. Among other things, we discussed clamming in Connecticut because Quincy had a summer place in Connecticut and I had originally come from Connecticut. We discussed digging clams and whether we did it with our feet and our toes or dug them out with a shovel. I said I did it with my toes, and, as it turned out, so did he. I’d like to think that my toes brought me to the Library of Congress. I asked him why he asked that question, and he gave me an interesting answer, expressing an interview philosophy that I, myself, followed afterward. He said that obviously I was qualified for the job or I wouldn’t be having the conversation, so what he wanted to know was whether I could get along with him. After we talked about clamming, he decided that the answer was that I could. So that was that.

The relationship with Paul Howard obviously preceded my arrival and, socially, continued afterwards. My relationship with Betty Stone, a very meaningful one to me, began during my twenty-five years of adjunct work at Catholic University, where I taught a course in special librarianship. While at the Office of Education, I executed several contracts with Catholic University and the Library of Congress.

By 1970 I was head of the Federal Library Committee and also head of a joint task force with the national libraries of agriculture and medicine and the Library of Congress. That too is part of what brought me here.

Well, then, what led up to your appointment in 1973 as director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped?

Well, you don’t prepare for a job like the one I have. There is only one job like it in the United States. So one would be foolish to spend any time thinking about how you would get such a job until it became available. My predecessor here, who did a superb job, was a fellow named Robert Bray. Unfortunately, he developed a fatal illness and was forced to retire. This was tragic, but in consequence the position became open. I said to myself, “Well, should I apply?” I recalled an author whose books I collect, Arthur Ransome. I remembered a phrase from one of his novels. It says, “Grab a chance and you won’t be sorry for a might have been.” So after thinking about that a bit, I said, “What the heck, I’ll go for it.” I did, and I was successful. Quincy Mumford appointed me to the position, and that’s how I arrived at Taylor Street.

Looking at the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped right now, what is the extent and scope of the services it provides?

Members of the blind community, until very recently, until the advent of the computer, had very limited opportunities to engage in many activities—I mean “regular” activities. And one of the activities that they enjoyed the most, and missed the most if they had sight before becoming blind, was reading. A reading program was established about seventy-seven years ago to serve the adult blind community. Through the years it was modified so that it became available not only to the adult blind but also to the juvenile blind. Then in the late 1960s, physically handicapped individuals also were introduced in the program.

So blind and physically handicapped are tied together as they relate to reading?

Blindness means one cannot read print with correction (use of prescription eye glasses), and physically handicapped means one might have perfect eyesight but one can’t hold the book or turn the pages. Various situations, physical situations, could put you in that condition, including temporary situations. For example, if you had a detached retina and were required to lie in bed for a period of time, or if heart disease kept you in a hospital for a period of time, you would be eligible for help from the program. It also serves people who have such things as Parkinson’s disease, or, people who have been in military service and have lost limbs, conditions of that sort. So what do we at NLS do for them? Well, we make a public library service available. We have a collection of two million items for reading. Counting copies of books in multiple locations, we have more than twenty million copies of books around the country. We provide these books through a network of libraries, replicating the service of a library system in a medium-sized city in the United States. Regional libraries and subregional libraries actually provide direct service to our users.

What is LC’s role?

The Library of Congress selects the books, reproduces them in audio or in Braille, and distributes these versions to a network of 140 libraries, which as I just mentioned provide the direct service. They provide not only the circulation of the books but also the reference service and the personal service that individuals may require. We provide a full range of public library services to a special community interested in receiving them. Carolyn Sung is the head of our network services section. Carolyn and her part of NLS work with the American Library Association. The other side of our program, guided by Michael Katzmann, designs and contracts for the machines that make the program’s physical items work.

I spend a great deal of my time working with or “interfacing” (though I don’t like that word I’ll use it) with the blind community. I’m involved with two organizations, the American Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind. For almost forty years I have spent every Fourth of July but one with the National Federation of the Blind at its annual conference because the conference is held in July, and the next week each year I’ve spent some time with the American Council of the Blind. One year, when the meetings didn’t occur in July, I was home for the Fourth of July and was dumbfounded to see all that I had been missing. I didn’t realize that we had a parade in our town on the Fourth, and evidently my wife and family had a barbecue at my home each year, and all my friends were there, but I never was. Anyway, that’s what we at NLS do—we select books, we reproduce the books in media that are appropriate, we ship them to libraries around the country, and the local librarians run the service.

But doesn’t NLS now also provide digital services?

Yes, at this point we’re also providing an automated digital service. We have a digital download program for Braille and we have a digital download program for audio. This is a major change. Unfortunately, only a minority of blind and handicapped people can take advantage of this, but the minority of people who can take advantage do so and love it. However, there’s nothing we make available to download that is not available also in hard copy Braille or in cassette/cartridge audio form.

In your thirty-five years as director of NLS, which programs have given you the most professional and personal satisfaction?

When the program started out for adults only, we provided books in Braille, paper Braille, and audio recordings on 78-rpm records. Over time the audio went from 78 to 33, and 33 went to 16, and 16 went to 8 1/3 rpm. My predecessor Bob Bray had experimented with wire recording. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember the wire, but their use lasted a very short time for multiple reasons. For example, the sound was not particularly good, and also people could cut themselves with the wire. It was wire from reel to reel. We began recording on cassettes, but then we had copyright concerns. We recorded all the books with no financial remuneration to the authors, and at that time we had to request permission to do so. We had to keep track of our books so they could not be used by the general public. Eventually, we developed a compromise, a cassette system with four sides, four tracks, in half speed. Each book was put on two and a half cassettes, on the average. Thus, the books could not be easily copied. The average three-hundred-page book would get on two and a half cassettes.

To produce such cassettes, we had to design a special machine, a sound-recording machine. Even when we had two versions of the machine, a standard machine and an “easy” machine, there were still buttons that had to be pushed and cassettes that had to be turned over, and it was quite awkward for users. The coming of digital technology made the whole thing different. Realizing that digital was the future, we started about ten years ago to try to take advantage of it. In developmental work, we took some “wow” guesses, but the wow guesses were based on very serious research, and we determined that we were going to skip use of the compact discs because the compact disc is very fragile; it’s not robust at all. Blind people would have to handle it, and they could damage it by inadvertent scraping, and you can’t put Braille on it, not very well, and compact discs also had other problems. So we skipped their use and went to what we call a “flash-memory” technology in which there are no moving parts. I’ve actually brought people here to try to explain to us how something can work with no moving parts, and I still don’t understand. But at any rate we can put a full book on one flash (nonvolatile, solid state media) the size of my thumb, and play it on a Talking Book machine, and that’s fantastic. Even better than that, the machine is designed to talk to users. You put it on, and it says, “This is a Talking Book machine.” Then it tells you that, if you want to use it, you push a certain button—this one is to go forward, this one is to go backward, and so forth—and it speaks to you. If you do something wrong, it says you’re naughty and shouldn’t do that. No, it doesn’t actually say that, but using the talking machine is as close to reading with print as you can get, because you can go backward, you can go forward, you can start again and pick up where you had stopped, you can bookmark, and you can go to specified chapters and pages, and so forth. It’s just a totally revolutionary thing. So what has given me the most enjoyment has been getting from the 8 1/3-rpm record to the cassette—to the half-speed, four-track cassette—and now to the digital. Now, obviously I did not personally do all that. We have a staff that did that. We have been very fortunate to have highly qualified engineers. The chap who is in charge of that now is Michael Katzmann, the head of our engineering efforts. Michael has built a staff of engineers behind him; it’s those fellows who really do the job. Right now we’re building a prototype of the flash-memory system.

Any developments in the area of Braille?

Braille is important, but only approximately 20 percent of the population we serve read Braille. Audio use is 95 percent. In other words, there are some people who are deaf and blind who can’t use the audio, so we produce Braille books both in paper hardcopies (a normal book, say a novel, would take four Braille volumes, each one maybe two-and-a-half inches thick) and also in a digital form, which people can download.

In 1994 Dr. Billington cited you for providing exceptional service to visually and physically impaired persons. Outside of the services to the blind, what NLS services are available to people physically handicapped?

Well, all the services. Very few people are totally blind in the United States or anywhere else in the world. Most are visually impaired. In other words, some may have “travel sight,” which means they can be mobile with the help of a cane but they cannot read standard print. Physically handicapped persons may be able to read standard print, maybe not, but most can’t hold a book or turn the pages. So all our services are available, but it’s really the audio services that physically handicapped individuals require rather than Braille.

Having received numerous awards over the years, such as the 1964 John Cotton Dana Award; the Golden Cassette Award for Library Partnership, awarded in 2007 by the Braille Institute of America; and the Robert Bray Award from the American Council of the Blind, also awarded in 2007, which award are you most proud of receiving and why?

There are two. One is the Newel Perry Award from the National Federation of the Blind. As I told you, I’ve involved myself with both the American Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind, and it’s a total involvement—some people say too much. In other words, I’m not blind, but I almost consider myself part of the blind community. We have arrangements where I meet with the National Federation of the Blind at various times, and, also, I speak at their chapter meetings. This is very important. We get a great deal of criticism from the Federation, and from the American Council of the Blind. When I say criticism, I mean positive criticism as well as negative criticism. And even the negative is very important because it alerts us to things we are not doing well. We have a blind employee, Judy Dixon, who received a doctorate in psychology. She is our consumer relations person and sits in on all the meetings to make sure blindness is considered when making decisions. When we went seeking money to convert books for use in the digital program, the blind community was there to help us. They were there because they enjoyed and benefitted from the service. I was dumbfounded when they presented the Newel Perry award to me in 2005. I have it hanging on my office wall. It means a lot to me. It’s not just the award. It attests to relationships. Kenneth Jernigan, a leader of the blind who is deceased—with him I had a wonderful working relationship. Marc Maurer, who is now the president of the organization; John Paré, who is on the National Federation of the Blind staff; and many others—I look at them as friends, as associates, almost as close as brothers. The wonderful thing is that if they don’t like something or something needs to be tweaked, they’re the first to tell me. Another award I prize is the American Library Association Award, called the Joseph Lippincott Award. Receiving this award took me by surprise because I’m not a member of any association. So for the American Library Association to recognize me, along with people I have really admired, such as John Lorenz and John Cole, an outstanding librarian award was fantastic. But I’m not as emotionally wrapped up with librarians as I am with blind people.

So outside of your many professional accomplishments, please elaborate on your interesting list of personal activities, seemingly centered around books, the sea, and the author Arthur Ransome.

Arthur Ransome: when I was nine years old (I can remember the day), my mother took me by the hand, and I walked into the Donald G. Mitchell Branch of the New Haven Public Library and found a book called Swallows and Amazons. Arthur Ransome was a war correspondent, was in Russia in 1917, wrote about China and fly fishing—he had quite a life. His other life was writing a series of children’s books. The books are Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, Coot Club, and We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, among others. I became fascinated with them, and the characters became real to me. I was one of the early members of the international group called the Arthur Ransome Society. What I quoted earlier—“grab a chance and you won’t be sorry for a might have been”—came from We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea. On my honeymoon, my wife and I visited Montreal. I walked into a bookstore, and there was a paperback book with an island on it and I said, “My God, that’s Swallows and Amazons.” I started collecting, and now I have, I believe, the largest personal collection of Ransome’s work. I did some interesting things when Ransome died. I wrote to his eulogist, Rupert Heart Davis. Nobody was collecting Ransome’s works at that time, and I asked Davis for a copy of the eulogy. He sent me his manuscript copy, signed.

There was a member at the Ransome Society whom my wife thought was strange—a woman up in Maine—who said that she guided her life by what Susan in Ransome’s books would think of her. My wife said that I was associating with a group of strange people. However, I find it mesmerizing that there’s a whole group of us, an international group. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think of Ransome, the children, and the activities that are so motivational.


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