Braille Monitor                                                 May 2011

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An Interview with Frank Kurt Cylke

by Gary Wunder

It seemed fitting to mark the conclusion of Kurt Cylke’s extraordinary career as director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped by inviting him to look back over his professional work and the NFB’s association with him. Each year, when he has addressed our national convention, he has mentioned how long it has been since he celebrated Independence Day with his family. We hope he enjoys the holiday with his loved ones this July; his Federation family will certainly miss having him with us. Here is our conversation:

Wunder: What was your experience before coming to the director's position?

Cylke: I've been in the library business since I was sixteen years old—not professionally, but I started working at the Yale University Library at that age. My family were librarians. My father met my mother at the Yale Library; my aunt met my uncle at the Yale Library; I met my wife at the New Haven Public Library. Actually I don't know whether you were a Boy Scout, but my favorite merit badge was the reading badge, where we had to get involved with libraries. My father sent my brother to work at sixteen to the First New Haven Bank, and he became an economist. I went to work at the Yale Library at sixteen and became a librarian, so I guess that's the way life works. It was just ordained that I was going to be a librarian.

When I graduated from college, I went to Pratt institute in Brooklyn, New York. I took a job at a boarding school in Palm Beach, Florida, where I was the librarian and an assistant sailing master.

Wunder: What an interesting combination—librarian and sailing master?

Cylke: For a young man that was a nice job. This was at the Graham-Eckes School, and we had a lot of those children who enjoyed sailing and had their own boats. It was on North County Road in Palm Beach, Florida, and it was the most interesting place to be because it was at the time of the Kennedys and all of that social world. This was all foreign to me; I did not come from a social background of that sort.

I then went to the Bridgeport Public Library, from Bridgeport to New Haven, from there to Providence, and then to the government. I came to the NLS in the early 1970s and stayed for thirty-nine plus years.

Wunder: When you came to the NLS, did you have any particular interest in libraries for the blind?

Cylke: No I did not. The Library of Congress, NLS, was experiencing an awkward patch with the NFB. The Librarian of Congress sent me to NLS—I did not solicit it—but my personal philosophy, one that many people share, "His food I eat; his song I sing," so, when I got there, I said to myself that "I know nothing about this, but let me throw myself into it because this ought to be interesting.”

Shortly after I went there, I found that from my perspective the Library's position was the wrong one and untenable. They had committed a serious social and political breach, and it was up to me to correct it. I worked very hard to do so, and fortunately Dr. Jernigan was of a similar mind--he held my position much earlier than I did, but I believe he was correct. We came to a rapprochement.

Wunder: What was the misunderstanding?

Cylke: A young employee was scheduled to visit the NFB convention (don't ask me which convention) and did not attend or call to say he was not attending. This was an affront to the organization, and Dr. Jernigan took it that way. In retrospect I believe he had a right to. My predecessor chose to defend his staff member's actions, and that's what initiated the problem. It was an affront to the NFB to have a national conference with a featured speaker and not to have that speaker call to excuse his absence. Anybody is rational enough to understand that there could be a crisis in your life, but not to tell the NFB was a problem--anyone can make a phone call.


[I interrupt to insert what the Braille Monitor from September of 1971 has to say about the matter.

An occurrence most unusual in the history of NFB conventions took place when the scheduled panel on "Library Services-Today and the Decade Ahead" was introduced at the Thursday morning session. It seemed that one panel member, James M. Hahn, assistant chief for reader services, Division for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress in Washington, was not on the platform. After calling for him through the convention's public address system and having him paged by the hotel, it was decided to proceed with the program and meanwhile make further inquiries.

While the Convention listened to Mrs. Lois F. LaBauve, director of the Division for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Texas State Library, speak with interest about the work of a Regional Library, the search for Mr. Hahn continued. It was eventually discovered that he was not in Houston. Since the date, place, hour, and subject had all been confirmed by phone and correspondence, the effort to locate Mr., Hahn was extended, and he was finally reached by telephone at his desk in Washington, D. C. His failure to appear before the largest group of consumers of his services was the first time a scheduled speaker did not deem it important enough--for whatever extenuating circumstance--to inform the officers of the organization that he would not be present.

The Convention unanimously adopted a strong resolution asking that Mr. Hahn and his supervisor, Robert S. Bray, be reprimanded. Copies of the resolution and Mr. Hahn's correspondence with the president of the National Federation of the Blind accepting the invitation have been sent, under a cover letter from our chief executive, to the president of the United States, the librarian of Congress, and to every member of the United States Congress.

Now back to the interview and comments from Mr. Cylke.]


Thankfully our relationship got better and better as the years went by, and frankly I will tell you that after almost four decades being the director was the most interesting thing I have ever done. I knew nothing about blind people and had never met a blind person before. That's why I was put there--the library perceived I would be a neutral person without an ax to grind.

Wunder: What would you say were the highlights of your service?

Cylke: I'm not being patronizing here, but I think the highlight of my service was making a rapprochement with the organized blind community, understanding how important the library program was and is for information and recreation to the community, and turning the program into a consumer-oriented program. We have set up various committees--the collection development committee, the machine committee--and we base our whole program on what the consumer wishes, blending that with the obvious professionalism of the library side in selecting the appropriate books, magazines, and delivery services. I also established a point of consumer liaisons, a position held from the very beginning by Judy Dixon as it still is, but that position is set aside specifically for a member of the user community to make sure that there is involvement in all of the decisions at NLS and that a consumer voice is heard.

I had two other interesting experiences I would identify as highlights. One was introducing the four-track cassette, and at the end of the line introducing the digital Talking Book. We learned a great deal between these two changes in technology: from the disk to cassette and from the cassette to the digital. I believe the digital has gone so well because we learned a lesson which was inculcated in us by the NFB of listening to the consumer. When we designed the digital machine, we had the full involvement of two consumer organizations. We tested it in fourteen different locations, and the test involved a representative from the NFB as well as from an organization for the physically handicapped in Wisconsin. We tested with all sorts of users: bright and slow, young and old, those without physical handicaps and those with physical handicaps, those with perfect listening and those without. The reception of the machine has proven this to be an ideal way to go about it. Batelle was doing the hardware, HumanWare was doing the software, and the NFB was working on testing.

Wunder: Everyone I talk with loves the machine.

Cylke: Everything is a compromise. The machine could be a little smaller, could be a little bigger, but I think, building a machine for a broad population, it came out pretty well. This, of course, could not have been done without a fine engineering group at NLS. There's a fellow named Michael Katzmann, who is our lead engineer. Believe it or not, he has thirteen Emmys. Without asking me, he copied me on an e-mail he sent to his staff, and to paraphrase, he said, “If you've wondered whether you've done a good job or not, some statistics have come to my attention. So far we have produced 330,000 machines, and we have had 110 problems.” That's fantastic. I mention Michael because it's awkward when the head of the organization gets all the attention. Obviously a great deal of the work is done by the people at home. Michael is one of those guys at home who deserve a great deal of credit.

Wunder: I know the NFB and the NLS have weathered some hard times together, from the attempts to take money from NLS for other library programs, to the flap over Playboy’s being distributed in Braille to the blind. What can you tell me about these?

Cylke: The internal library situation I'd rather not comment on. There have been bad times—we were there together—and there will be bad times in the future. I guess the interesting thing about the Playboy situation was that it was a member of the press corps, on a hot July day, who went to a Congressman from Ohio (now deceased) and showed him a Braille copy of Playboy and the Congressman said, "This is horrendous that government money should be spent on this," and therein started the tale. It got to the point where the Library's budget was brought up on the floor of the House, and, when that specific point was made, they deducted the cost of the production of that magazine from the budget. The interesting thing was that we then went to court, and Congressman Jerry Lewis and Vic Fazio, both of Ohio, came to testify as friends of the court on behalf of the Library and had the money restored. My perspective was that, once they called for a roll call vote, nobody, regardless of their political view, wanted to vote for Playboy in Braille, but they didn't really oppose it because we got the money back and continued to do it.

I should say that, in my almost forty years of running the program, Congress has been very generous to the library for the blind program. We never asked for money that we didn't need, we never asked for money that couldn't be justified, and in every case we received the money that we asked for. Now in some cases it became a public discussion when we were asking for a big shot of money (seventy-five-million) to execute the digital program, and the NFB, unsolicited, served the NLS very well.

Wunder: "I remember that you were very active on and supportive of the JOE (Joint Organizational Effort) Committee. Can you describe your role in getting it started and working as a part of it?

Cylke: Well, I'm not trying to be humble, but the JOE Committee--that was really Dr. Jernigan's idea, and he brought together all in one room the NFB, ACB, CNIB, NLS, and AFB. At that time there was a lot of friction among the groups. He brought them together very well, and there were several projects where we all worked together. We had different ideas about our user base. One project that members of the committee funded was a contract with the Census Bureau to get us some numbers. There were other projects, but as for JOE, Dr. Jernigan gets the credit for bringing the organizations together, for starting the committee, and for supporting it. When you look at all that Dr. Jernigan accomplished, it is really amazing.

Wunder: Are there other amazing moments in your life you think readers might find interesting?

Cylke: I was there when Ray Kurzweil brought the concept of his reading machine to Dr. Jernigan at one of the conventions, and I consider that one of the highpoints of my life. Ray was a young kid—a PhD student at MIT, I think—and he was selling Dr. Jernigan on the concept. Just to observe Ray selling it and Dr. Jernigan coming from zero to grasping it to embracing it was amazing. And to think there's now this little machine that you can hold in your hand—that's something.

Wunder: What do you think the future holds for the NLS?

Cylke: The budget problems of our nation, whether you want to cut six-billion dollars as the Democrats want or sixty-billion as the Republicans want, will have an impact everywhere, including the Library. In any organization you have to have a fairly strong leader to back the efforts of the suborganizations so that funds aren't siphoned away for other uses.

Wunder: What about factors other than the budget? What, for example, is the future for regionals and subregionals as more and more patrons download what they want?

Cylke: This is obviously my personal view, but there are two things that can happen. Currently 10 percent of the users of the program use the download, so 90 percent don't. That will change over time, I'm convinced. Right now you have 60 percent of the users over sixty and somewhat hesitant to use computers. In the future that will change, and more people will be doing the download. Nature will make this change: older people will leave the program, and the younger people who are more computer savvy will become the majority. A second factor brings us back to the budget with the recession or depression or whatever you want to call it. Many state libraries have been severely affected in a negative way. The question will be whether the libraries can continue to exist, or will their funding be cut or eliminated. Some states have put all of their federal discretionary money into their regional libraries, so, if that federal money goes away, there is no regional library unless they take money from other sources and put it there. So the regional libraries could slowly become less important because of the growing interest in and use of computers and because of the lower funding levels.

Wunder: When I called to set up this interview, you told me you were training as a volunteer in your new job. What is it? Can you tell me about your training?

Cylke: Well I have been a birder, I guess you'd say, since college. I'm very fortunate to live in a town called Great Falls, Virginia, and there's a national park here. For twenty-five or thirty years I'd go on a bird walk every Sunday morning. I got to know the park and volunteered some years ago when there was a big drug craze and we were losing six or seven people a year in the Potomac River at this park. They wanted people to have a presence in the park, and they felt that, if a fellow put on a uniform and a hat, those addicted to drugs wouldn't feel they should jump into the water. I walked around there on Sundays for a couple of years with my hat and my uniform, and I never met a druggie, and I never knew whether I stopped or caused anybody to jump. But I found all of this interesting, and I got outside, and I got to know people from all over the world who would come to the park, so, when I retired, I said that I wanted to go down and volunteer. Now I'm like nineteen years old again because I am attempting to earn my uniform shirt, my uniform hat, and a radio. The people training me said, "We'll let you know, Kurt, when we think you're ready," and I think that's pretty good because it's like starting all over again, working in public service and trying to interpret the park to the people.

Wunder: Is there anything I have not asked you that you would like to say?

Cylke: This is very presumptuous, but the one thing I'm left with is that the situation of the blind community is not widely and publicly known and accepted. I wound up with library services for the blind and physically handicapped, and everybody in this blindness world is aware of it, but the general public isn't. I think the NFB's effort in having Mark Riccobono drive around in that automobile was wonderful because it will cause people to say, "Oh, a blind person driving a car," and the students from Virginia Tech working on this are saying, "Wow, we're going to help blind people drive a car." It's amazing.

I can remember sitting at a dinner in Kenneth Jernigan's home when this topic first came up, and I will admit that I said, "My goodness, is this man reasonable?" I didn't say this to him, but I had it in my head. I'm confessing to you that I was saying in my head that "I just don't understand this; how could that ever be?" And going from there, maybe fifteen years ago, to see it on the Today Show last Sunday, and then reading in the paper two days later and seeing that Ford is working on the same thing—I look at that and think what a small mind I have.

Let me say one other thing, and this sounds hokey, and I guess I am hokey, but, when I look back on my life, and my whole professional life was with the blind community, what I want to say is, "Thanks for the memories." I guess I'll tell you, but the first thing I did the day after I retired is I went out and joined the NFB. I couldn't do that when I was a worker because I had to be balanced and approach both organizations equally. I haven't yet gotten my first Monitor, but I've sent my dues in at any rate.

Wunder: Congratulations on being a member, and welcome to the Federation.

Cylke: Thank you and it’s been a pleasure.

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