Half a century of music library service

Music Section staff play two French horns, guitar, piano and violin.
Staff of the NLS Music Section display their talents. From left: Mary Dell Jenkins, music reader services librarian and French horn player; John Hanson, section head and French horn player; Gilbert Busch, braille music specialist and pianist; Ben Bass, music consultant and guitar player; and Allison Benkwitt, music reader services librarian and violin player.

For fifty years the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped  (NLS) Music Section has provided patrons with opportunities to play, sing, and learn about music through its collection of special-format scores and instructional recordings. Large-print and braille scores range from popular songs to classical symphonies, from gospel hymns to Italian libretti. Audio and braille instructional books teach patrons methods for playing a multitude of instruments or simply give them the cultural and technical knowledge to better appreciate the music they love.

The Music Section was established on October 9, 1962, when President Kennedy signed Public Law 87-765 authorizing the Library of Congress to “establish and maintain a library of musical scores, instructional texts, and other specialized materials for the use of the blind.” At this time the Library had only a few fragmentary embossed scores and there was no unified music catalog to help patrons or librarians assess the available resources. With funds authorized, NLS quickly moved to correct this, acquiring 8,000 music items from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Howe Press, an arm of the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. By July 1964 the collection had further expanded to include scores from Europe, bringing the total music collection to 19,000 items. NLS also began preparing a catalog of its braille music scores that continues to be published in braille, large-print, and electronic formats.

The fledgling Music Section then turned its attention to recorded materials. The earliest audiobooks were purchased from the Center for Cassette Studies in the 1970s and included overviews of specific composers, such as Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and Wagner, and more general material on genres and common techniques. Other early acquisitions included instructional cassettes from the Homespun Tapes catalog and radio interviews with contemporary performers, musicians, and composers. By the 1980s the NLS Music Section had begun producing additional instructional cassettes in-house.

The latest challenge is digitization: the Music Section's role as a world-class repository carries with it the responsibility to ensure that its materials-some of which are impossible to replace-are preserved.

Today, John Hanson, head of the Music Section, notes that braille is “still the major artery” of the music program, which continues to provide services from a central office at NLS headquarters. The collection has grown to more than 100,000 items, including 20,000 braille scores, 800 large-print scores, and 3,000 instructional and appreciation recordings, making it the largest special-format music library in the world. The latest challenge is digitization: the Music Section’s role as a world-class repository carries with  it the responsibility to ensure that its materials—some of which are impossible to replace—are preserved.

“When I first started in 2001,” Hanson explained, “we had scores on our shelves that were falling apart. Some were from the 1920s. If we sent them out, they would come back in pieces.” In 2002, Hanson began experimenting with a small collection of digital braille scores on diskette from APH and Optical Braille Recognition software that his predecessor had acquired. (That scanner was replaced in 2007 with an ElecGest Braille Reader VDL, which works ten times faster and no longer requires cell-by-cell proofing. A next generation scanner is scheduled to arrive by the end of 2012 and should speed digitization progress even more. [News, April–June 2009, page 3].) By early 2003 the Music Section had begun putting scores, both scanned and born-digital, online.

“Digitization revolutionized the Music Section” in ways that reached far beyond the provision of electronic braille to patrons Hanson explained. Fresh master copies made from disintegrating volumes and duplicates could be quickly and easily embossed when multiple copies were needed for band students or other group performers. Music Section staff were also able to send patrons only the scores they were interested in, rather than having to ship out pre-bound volumes that contained multiple works or included lengthy commentary.

Digital audio has lagged behind digital braille in the Music Section, but thanks to recent updates the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) system is at last hosting music material. In anticipation of the BARD update, the Music Section began digitizing its backlog of appreciation and instructional cassettes in mid-2012. Hanson also plans to expand the instructional recording collection with new pieces produced by NLS. For example Argentinean guitarist and composer Martin Gendelman was able to record our first Spanish-language tutorial in 2011. Hanson said, “We hope to do more Spanish-language instructional recordings in the future.”

Those and other projects, including the creation of a Music Section blog, will keep the Music Section busy as it enters its fifty-first year. “We look forward to the next 50 years,” Hanson said, “and to continuing to grow to meet the diverse and expanding needs of our patrons, from students to hobbyists to professional performers.”

NLS patron performs at the Kennedy Center

Justin Kauflin playing piano.
NLS music patron Justin Kauflin (Photo by Margot Schulman)

Longtime NLS music patron Justin Kauflin performed on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., this past summer. Kauflin, a jazz pianist from Virginia Beach, Virginia, was a winner of the 28th Annual VSA International Young Soloists Award, which recognizes outstanding musicians who have disabilities. Ignasi Cambra Díaz, William Eisenberg, and Yongsit Yongkamol, the other three VSA winners, also performed.

Justin played one of his own compositions, “Exodus,” Jimmy McHugh’s “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and Lennon-McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home” for the concert. Justin has also played, composed, and produced his first CD, entitled Introducing Justin Kauflin.

NLS 2013 exhibit schedule

Date Location
January 25–29 American Library Association
(will include Public Library Association meeting)
Seattle, Washington
February 13–16 Texas Music Educators Association
San Antonio, Texas
February 27–March 3 Music Library Association
San Jose, California
March 19–23 American Society on Aging
Chicago, Illinois
April 3–6 Council for Exceptional Children
San Antonio, Texas
April 19–22 International Reading Association
San Antonio, Texas
April 22–24 American Association of Home Services for the Aging
Washington, D.C.
April 24–27 United Cerebral Palsy
San Diego, California
June 27–July 2 American Library Association Annual Conference
Chicago, Illinois
July 1–6 National Federation of the Blind
Orlando, Florida
July 4–12 American Council of the Blind
Columbus, Ohio
July 8–13 Association on Higher Education and Disability
Baltimore, Maryland
August TBA Blinded Veterans Association
Spokane, Washington
August 7–10 American Association of Diabetes Educators
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
August 23–29 American Legion
Houston, Texas

Unified English Braille to replace English Braille American Edition

After more than 20 years of research and discussion, the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) has voted to replace the English Braille American Edition code with Unified English Braille (UEB).

The decision aligns the United States with England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Nigeria—the other countries represented on the International Council on English Braille—in adopting UEB.

Judith Dixon, acting braille development officer for NLS and a former chairperson of BANA, said UEB “is not so terribly different” from the current code. But the change will have a big impact. “Braille is going to be easier to learn, especially for adults,” she said. “It should be less expensive to produce. And proofreaders should have less trouble with it.”

NLS director Karen Keninger, who has made increasing braille literacy one of her goals, added, “It will have some benefits for new braille readers and students. And I don’t think it will have a negative impact on current braille readers.”

The process of developing UEB began in 1991 in the United States, and within two years it became an international effort. The goal was to unify the different English braille codes in use—a need made more urgent by the introduction in the late 1980s of computer braille, which includes yet another set of characters for symbols such as the dollar sign, period, and comma. Multiple symbols with the same meaning add to the complexity of braille, making it more of a challenge for students, teachers, readers, and transcribers. Braille also hasn’t kept up with changes in print usage—for example, there is no good way to show symbols such as “+” (plus sign) and “=” (equals sign) in everyday writing that may not be related to actual math. BANA believes problems like these have contributed to a steady erosion in braille use.

What will and will not change

Adoption of UEB should speed braille production, reduce errors and ambiguities experienced by people reading braille on refreshable displays, and improve the automated conversion of braille to print and vice versa, so users and non-users of braille will be able to communicate more easily and accurately.

What the adoption of UEB won’t change is as important as what will. The dot formations of letters and numbers will remain the same. So will the rules for formatting headings, paragraphs, contents pages, and other items involving spacing or placement on a page. The Nemeth Code for mathematics and science notation, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) Braille Code, and the Music Braille Code will be retained for specialized use. And UEB is already built into almost all braille-translation software programs, screen readers, and note-takers.

Some of the changes that adoption of UEB will bring:

  • Of the current 189 contractions 9 will be deleted to make room in the code for greater consistency and less confusion in the representation of other symbols. Rules for when to use contractions will change; some contractions will be used more often than they are now.
  • Most punctuation will remain the same, but some will change. For example, in UEB there are different symbols for opening and closing parenthesis signs, just as in print. And the symbol for a period will be the same regardless of whether it means a full stop, decimal point, or dot.
  • The symbols for asterisk, percent sign, dollar sign, and degree sign will change, while newer symbols such as copyright, trademark, and crosshatch will remain the same.
  • It will no longer be necessary to switch into a special code to read and write web and e-mail addresses.

More detail is available at BANA’s website, www.brailleauthority.org, specifically under the Frequently Asked Questions link.

Countries that have already adopted UEB love it, Dixon said. “They say ‘It’s way easier than we thought it would be.’” BANA cites one study done in England—before UEB was adopted there—in which 107 braille readers were presented with a sample text of UEB. All were able to read it, and only about 13 percent found it difficult.

Don’t expect to see NLS braille books in UEB right away, though. BANA will phase in implementation over several years to give readers, teachers, transcribers, and producers—including those that work with NLS—time to learn the new code. “We’re going to carefully plan how to make the transition,” Keninger said of NLS. “It won’t happen immediately.”

Most important, perhaps, to NLS patrons: books written in English Braille American Edition will stay in libraries. “People will still have access to them,” Dixon said.

Network librarians tour NLS headquarters

The NLS offers its orientation program to network library staff three times every year, allowing participants to learn about the various functions performed at headquarters directly from NLS staff. The 2012 sessions featured a digital talking-book machine repair workshop. The next orientation will take place March 12–15, 2013. Contact your network consultant for more information.

Librarians pause during tour of NLS headquarters.
Left to Right: Sandy Knowles, director, South Carolina State Library Talking Book Services; Michelle Makkos, librarian, Ohio Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled; Gail Stricker, librarian, Iowa Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped; and Josh Easter, audio-visual equipment coordinator, South Dakota State Library Braille and Talking Book Program, tour NLS headquarters during a 2012 orientation.

Network exchange

California. The Braille Institute Library hosted more than 400 patrons and guests during its annual open house on October 19, 2012. Attendees enjoyed a presentation by NLS director Karen Keninger and hands-on iPhone and iPad demonstrations. Kristin Allison was presented the Digital Platinum Award for her narration of more than 800 audiobooks for blind and physically handicapped readers.

Karen Keninger addresses roomful of people at Braille Institute.
NLS director Karen Keninger addresses 400-plus attendees during the Braille Institute Library’s annual open house.
Visitor uses iPad at Institute's tech fair.
A visitor takes part in a hands-on iPad demonstration during the Braille Institute library’s tech fair.

Georgia. In October 2012, the Atlanta Metro Library for Accessible Services (AMLAS) hosted an exhibition featuring the works of local artist David Cannon.

Cannon, who has been painting regularly for about two years, uses art to help cope with substance abuse and multiple disabilities. “I love to work,” he  said. “It takes me away. I found art as a healing tool; then I realized there was much more to it, and that I needed to explore what it means to be an artist.”

Cannon works mostly with acrylic house paints, which he pours on surfaces such as plywood, metal shelving, foam board, and even other artists’ cast-off canvases. People have offered to buy his paintings out of his arms as he rides public transportation to deliver them to galleries, he said.

tiger made with scraps of braille paper pottery jug with eyes, nose, mouth and buck teeth four vertical paintings across a wide panel.
Samples of David Cannon’s work on display at Georgia’s AMLAS are (from left) “Night Lights,” Untitled 2,” Untitled 5,” and “Untitled 13.”

Mississippi. The Blind and Physically Handicapped Library has created “series on demand” by downloading all available titles in a popular series onto one cartridge for distribution. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone/Alphabet, William W. Johnstone’s First Mountain Man, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series are just three of the offerings the library has compiled. Patrons are encouraged to contact their reader advisors with requests.

North Carolina. In July 2012 the North Carolina Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NCLBPH) hosted its second BELL—Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning—program in Raleigh. Twelve participants from across the state took part in the two-week program, which introduces students ages 6–12 with visual impairment to braille or helps those who are learning braille improve their skills. Participants also learned basic mobility and housekeeping skills and took field trips to a farmer’s market and to NCLBPH.

BELL is sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind with local sponsors in approximately 10 states, including the North Carolina Braille Literacy Council, with support from such groups as the Friends of the NCLBPH, Lions of North Carolina, Governor Morehead School, and the Division of Services for the Blind.

Tennessee. The Tennessee Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped sponsored the third annual Art Beyond Sight exhibition October 1–31, 2012, featuring artwork created by students at the Tennessee School for the Blind (TSB).

Items on display include paintings, shadow boxes, and pottery. “The work that the Tennessee School for the Blind’s students do is truly inspiring,” Secretary of State Tre Hargett said.

The exhibit features several “ugly face” jugs, such as one by Carlos Vilchez (left), which were created during a study of Appalachian history and art. Historically moonshiners were unable to lock their product away from small children, so they created jugs with ugly faces to frighten the children away from the contents.

In keeping with tradition, the centerpiece of the Art Beyond Sight is mascot Dot, a papîer-mâché tiger made of scraps of braille paper that TSB students created in 2010 (far left). Unlike the items in many art exhibitions, the tiger—on permanent loan to the Tennessee State Library and Archives—is meant to be touched.

Buitano joins Automation team

Hugh Buitano
Hugh Buitano

Software entrepreneur Hugh R. Buitano was recently named assistant head of the Automation Section at NLS. Buitano has more than 20 years of experience leading software research and development programs, deploying information technology systems, and establishing worldwide business partnerships at companies such as Xerox and ContentGuard. He has developed software, systems, and Internet solutions from the ground up.

“Hugh Buitano is an innovator who has an impressive record of facilitating collaboration,” said Karen Keninger, NLS director. “His experience with coaching people to plan adaptively and respond quickly to change will help us leverage new and existing technologies to enhance the reading experiences of our patrons.”

Buitano has been tasked with redesigning the online database used by the NLS network of cooperating libraries. “We are now developing a pilot project for the new network library database and are applying Agile software-development methods—a process where engineers and customers are engaged throughout the product-development lifecycle. This will help developers and consumers interact with people across the team,” Buitano said.

At Xerox, Buitano led the development of a new generation of document systems, scanners, and printers that were connected to networks and to the Internet. In 2000 Buitano became a pioneer in the digital rights management industry, developing solutions at ContentGuard that were quickly incorporated into the MPEG 4 standard and e-Book systems. When ContentGuard was acquired by Microsoft, Time Warner, and Thomson, Buitano founded Info-Secure, a start-up that provided software solutions for securing data, media, and documents throughout an organization’s production and distribution lifecycle. After he sold InfoSecure Buitano formed Alo Networks LL, a company that offers targeted and interactive mobile advertising to Hispanic consumers.

“The mission of NLS is more noble than anything I’ve done throughout my entire career,” said Buitano. “I find the agency’s purpose to be deeply compelling, which brings a greater sense of urgency to my work here. I hope to bring my sense of customer engagement and awareness to developing solutions for NLS.”