Sen. Reed Smoot of Utah and Rep. Ruth Pratt of New York could not have imagined the exponential growth of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) when they sponsored the program's founding legislation in 1931. With an appropriation in excess of $53 million and a staff of 130, NLS currently circulates more than 24 million copies of braille and recorded books and magazines by mail to approximately 500,000 readers through a network of 132 cooperating libraries. NLS is also preparing for a major move to the next generation of audio technology—digital talking books.
By JANE CAULTON
As the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) celebrates its 75th year of ensuring that all may read, it is a time to look back at past achievements while preparing to launch a powerful new generation of digital talking books.
Often referred to as the Library's "talking book program," NLS was born March 31, 1931, when President Herbert Hoover signed the Pratt-Smoot Act into law, authorizing the Library of Congress to provide embossed books for blind people in the United States and its territories. Three months later, on July 1, 1931, the Library established Books for the Adult Blind, the division that would implement the service.
The legislation was the outgrowth of efforts dating back to the late 19th century to improve literacy for blind people. In 1897, when the new Congressional Library (later named the Thomas Jefferson Building) opened its doors, it provided a special reading room to share its collections with blind readers. In 1912 Congress funded the appointment of a professional librarian and the acquisition of a collection of 2,000 braille volumes.
Books for the Adult Blind
Several decades later, for fiscal year 1932, the Books for the Adult Blind program received a congressional appropriation of $100,000. That first year of operation, the staff selected 15 titles for embossing and distribution. By 1936 Standard English Braille had become the accepted braille format for all English-speaking countries, and the Library was circulating more than 6,000 braille books.
Despite this impressive growth in braille book distribution, agencies such as the American Printing House for the Blind believed that people who had lost their sight after age 50 might not have the sensitive fingers needed for learning braille. Through an amendment to the Pratt-Smoot Act in 1934, Congress appropriated $10,000 for the purchase of the first generation of talking books: books on phonograph records. However, it was not until 1947 that Congress appropriated funds for the Library to provide blind readers with the equipment on which to play the special phonograph records.
Books for the Blind Division
In 1943 the Books for the Adult Blind program become the Division of Books for the Adult Blind, and the organization took over the Braille Transcribing Service from the Red Cross. With this development, the Library of Congress became responsible for the certification of all U.S. braille transcribers and proofreaders.
The word "adult" was removed from the division's name in 1952 when the service was expanded to include children. A decade later, the program expanded to include music instruction materials. With the passage of Public Law 89-522 in 1966, the name changed to the Division for the Blind and Physically Handicapped to serve people with other physical impairments that prevent the reading of standard print. The following year, in order to provide space for its growing collections and staff, the division was relocated to an annex in northwest Washington, D.C. (approximately five miles from Capitol Hill).
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
By 1978 the division had expanded from 18 regional centers to 56 regional libraries (nearly one in every state; some states have two) and more than 101 subregional libraries. The staff had grown from one professional librarian to nearly 100, and the program's budget was approaching $33 million. At that time, the organization adopted its current name, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
In 1969 NLS implemented its second generation of talking books when analog cassettes and cassette players entered the technological horizon. This technology remained state-of-the-art for several decades, during which time NLS developed an inventory of 24 million cassettes and more than 730,000 cassette players for distribution to a growing number of patrons.
The advent of the Internet led NLS to prepare for an eventual move from analog to digital technology. In 1999 NLS introduced Web-Braille, a Web-based service that provides users with a variety of braille books and music scores and all-braille magazines produced by NLS in an electronic form. The Web-Braille site, which is password-protected, requires the use of special equipment for access. As a result of new computer technology, braille readers may now access Web-Braille digital braille book files with a computer and a refreshable braille display (an electronic device that raises or lowers an array of pins to create a line of braille characters) or a braille embosser.
Digital Talking Books
In the early 1990s NLS convened a meeting in Dublin, Ireland, of major stakeholders in library services to blind people from around the globe to begin planning the next generation of talking books. Among them were the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the National Council for the Blind of Ireland and the Royal National Institute for the Blind of Great Britain. The participants exchanged technical information and explored the potential of digital technology for talking books.
In 1997 NLS took the next step by forming the Digital Talking-Book Standards committee, comprising more than two dozen individuals from libraries and organizations serving and representing blind and physically handicapped persons. Participants included the American Council of the Blind, the American Foundation for the Blind, the National Federation of the Blind, Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, the University of Wisconsin's Trace Research and Development Center, and the World Blind Union.
The committee worked closely with the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) to create a universal standard that would define the performance requirements for the digital talking book (DTB) and its player. In 2002 the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) approved ANSI/NISO Z39.86-2002 as the national standard for the DTB and its player. This standard, "Specifications for the Digital Talking Book," defined the format and content of a unified set of electronic files for the DTB and established a set of requirements for the DTB player.
In 2005 the Library awarded a contract to design the DTB player and cartridge to Battelle, an innovator in technological advances. Batelle is working with three organizations at the forefront of digital and technological development for disabled individuals. These include the Humanware Group of Canada, the Trace Center of the University of Wisconsin and the National Federation of the Blind of Baltimore, Md.
NLS chose the Universal Serial Bus (USB) Flash Drive for the circulation of DTBs. These credit-card-sized devices, which can hold an entire DTB, will be used with the forthcoming DTB player. The USB Flash Drive contains flash memory, a type of computer memory that can be read from, written to or erased and that does not lose its data when power is removed. This is the same kind of memory many digital cameras use to store pictures. The new medium is durable, easy to use, reusable and recyclable.
In 2008 NLS will begin to replace its existing cassette-based talking book system with the new digital talking books to provide the same high-quality narration NLS patrons have come to expect.
For more information about NLS and its programs, visit its Web site at www.loc.gov/nls/.
Jane Caulton is head of the Publications and Media Section in the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.