Braille Monitor                                                 May 2011

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Frank Kurt Cylke, Director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Retires

by Marc Maurer

Kurt Cylke addresses an audience at the Braille Institute.On February 28, 2011, Mr. Frank Kurt Cylke retired from employment in the Library of Congress. From 1973 until very shortly before his retirement, he served as director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). He assumed the position because it was felt by those in the Library of Congress that he had the personality to manage what had become a turbulent and chaotic program. He brought to his directorship not only a steady hand but a commitment to high-quality service for the blind and imaginative development of new products and services. Mr. Cylke’s tenure in office represents the most successful management of Library Services for the Blind that has ever existed.

I became acquainted with the NLS when I was nine years old. A Library for the Blind had been established in my home state of Iowa, and my father, who learned about it from the newspaper, signed me up for service. I had learned Braille two years earlier, and I could borrow Braille books from the library of the school for the blind during the school year. I could borrow only one volume at a time which I would hide under my bed until I heard the shoes of our houseparent walk by after the bedtime bell. Then I would slide the volume out and read until I could no longer stay awake.

However, I had no access to books during the summer. Then I became a borrower from the Iowa Library for the Blind. Big packages of books wrapped in brown paper and tied with string would come to my house through the mail. No longer was I restricted to a single volume or even to a single book—I could have two or even three at a time. Part of my responsibility involved shipping these books back to the library. They had to be unpacked with extreme care because I needed the paper and the string to repack the precious volumes. Each piece of paper had a label on it showing my address. Under the cover of the big Braille books inside the package were address labels to be used for mailing the books back. These labels were in the little pocket where the library card might go. In wrapping the packages for shipment to the library, I had to be certain that the label bearing my address was wrapped on the inside. When I had tied the string around the package, I glued the new shipping label onto it. Then I carried the big Braille book package the mile and a half to the post office. I did not know that I could leave the package at the mailbox for the mail carrier. The long walk was part of my responsibility if I wanted to receive books.

Years later I learned that I could borrow Talking Books. These were recorded on 33 rpm, twelve-inch records. The Maurers owned a stereo that played 33 rpm records. I was permitted to use it to listen to my Talking Books if the living room was not occupied by others. If company was visiting, if the television was being used, or if something else was happening in the living room, I could not listen to the books. Almost every evening somebody watched television. With two parents and six children in the family and with only one television (multiple-television households were largely unknown in those days), the living room was not available for my books with any frequency. However, my father had installed a remote speaker in the basement of the house, where he kept his woodworking tools. Although the television was blaring away in the living room, I learned that I could listen to the Talking Book records if I turned the volume very low. I would place a Talking Book record on the stereo, start the machine, and race for the basement. I had to climb on my father’s workbench and press my ear close to the speaker. I lost the first few words at the beginning of each record, but I heard most of the book. It was one more way to get at the reading matter I loved.

When I was in high school, a blind fellow who lived in our town died. He had obtained a Talking Book machine, a large, heavy record player that played the 33 rpm disks. Somebody asked me if I wanted the machine. I could put this device in my bedroom and listen to books any time I pleased. It was a liberating experience.

I suspect that the thirst for books experienced by many blind people is generated (at least in part) by the scarcity that existed when we were first trying to get them. Today, with the downloadable books from the Library that have come to be a part of the program Mr. Cylke created, blind people are collecting dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of books to read. Having one precious book is a delight. Having a selection at hand of two or three dozen different types of literature that can satisfy the mood, provide inspiration, offer information, or tickle the fancy is equivalent to discovering a treasure trove.

Mr. Cylke began to direct the library while I was in college. What he wanted was more service to more patrons provided more efficiently with more books than had previously been available. His administration of the program was not flashy but steady and competent. Immediately upon becoming director of the program, he initiated a series of semiannual meetings with consumer groups to gain insight about the nature of the service and to learn about methods for improving it. He sought mechanisms to change from recordings on disk to recordings on cassette, and he insisted on quality.

When it appeared that recordings on cassette would become a thing of the past, Mr. Cylke sought to gather as much information as possible about the nature of recorded material in times to come. After studying the trends in electronic storage and retrieval systems, Mr. Cylke and his team of engineers concluded that solid-state flash memory would likely be the best long-term solution for maintaining a substantial collection of recorded books. With deliberation he set about the process of recording books digitally and creating a digital Talking Book player. When the player was delivered, the failure rate for the devices was well under one tenth of one percent.

The joy of reading, the stimulation of a new idea, the lilt of language contained in imaginative poetic feet, a belief in the blind constituents who borrow the books—these are the driving forces that have inspired Frank Kurt Cylke to devote his life, his energy, and his imaginative commitment to the National Library Service. He came to be not only a beloved librarian but also a supporter of programming for the blind in the United States and beyond our borders. He served for decades as a delegate to the World Blind Union North America/Caribbean Region. In discussions of programming for the blind in this region of the world, he challenged delegates to the World Blind Union to live up to the promises they made for increasing the independence of the blind. Mr. Cylke believed that we should find a way to bring hope to those who are without it. One element of that hope was contained in the books he helped to reproduce in forms usable by the blind. However, he wanted us to work with each other to make this hope more all-pervasive than could be achieved with only a book. His service to the Library of Congress National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped was that of a thoroughly competent and imaginative administrator. He remains a champion of independence for the blind and a friend who will give all that he has to bring reality to the dream of a more productive life for his constituents.

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