The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, administers a free national library program that provides braille and recorded materials to persons who cannot see regular print or handle print materials. Established by an Act of Congress in 1931 to serve blind adults, the program was expanded in 1952 to include children, in 1962 to provide music materials, and again in 1966 to include individuals with other physical disabilities that prevent reading regular print.
Under a special provision of the U.S. copyright law and with the permission of authors and publishers of works not covered by that provision, NLS selects books and magazines for full-length publication in braille, e-braille, and digital audio. These reading materials are circulated to eligible borrowers through a network of cooperating regional and subregional libraries and advisory and outreach centers located throughout the United States and its territories, and to American citizens living abroad. The materials and free playback equipment needed to read audiobooks and magazines are sent to borrowers and returned to libraries by postage-free mail. Digital audio and braille materials are also available through the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) online service.
The NLS program is funded annually by Congress. The fiscal year 2014 appropriation is $49,750,000. Through a separate FY14 appropriation of $70,600,000 to the U.S. Postal Service, books and materials are mailed as “Free Matter for the Blind or Handicapped.” Cooperating network libraries may receive funding from state, local, and/or federal sources.
Any resident of the United States or American citizen living abroad who is unable to read or use regular print materials as a result of temporary or permanent visual or physical limitations may receive service.
Books are selected for the NLS collection on the basis of their appeal across a wide range of interests. Bestsellers, biographies, fiction, and how-to books are in great demand. The collection includes books in Spanish and a few titles in other languages. Books for youth—from preschool to young adult—are provided in audio, braille, and print/braille.
Registered borrowers learn of new books added to the collection through two bimonthly publications: Braille Book Review and Talking Book Topics. The NLS book collection and other resources from cooperating agencies are listed in the NLS Union Catalog, which is searchable at www.loc.gov/nls.
Magazines are selected for the program in response to demonstrated reader interest. NLS produces 41 audio and 34 braille magazine titles. Readers may subscribe to such titles as People, National Geographic, and Consumer Reports in audio and ESPN: The Magazine and the New York Times Large Print Weekly in braille. A variety of magazines for children are also available. Current issues are mailed to readers shortly after print issues are released.
Music Scores and Books
Individuals who are interested in music materials may receive them directly from the NLS Music Section. The collection consists of scores, textbooks, and books in braille and large print. Music appreciation materials on a wide variety of topics and self-instruction for voice, piano, organ, keyboard, guitar, recorder, accordion, banjo, harmonica, and other instruments are available on audio cartridge. All audio titles and braille scores and books are also available online through BARD.
In addition, NLS compiles and produces three music publications in accessible formats: Musical Mainstream; Contemporary Sound Track: A Review of Pop, Jazz, Rock, and Country; and Popular Music Lead Sheets. The Music Section may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-800-424-8567.
Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Mobile App
BARD is a web-based service that provides access to thousands of special-format books, magazines, and music materials. The same materials that are offered on digital cartridge are also available to be downloaded in compressed audio or braille formats. The password-protected service is operated as a partnership between NLS and its network of cooperating libraries. With the BARD Mobile app, readers may download and play audio materials on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch (NLS is working on an Android app). Braille readers can read materials on a refreshable braille display with a Bluetooth connection.
Equipment and Accessories
Patrons are loaned playback equipment free of charge for use with audio reading materials recorded on cartridges or downloaded from BARD. Digital talking-book machines play digitally recorded books and magazines and come in two models: standard and advanced. Both models provide high-quality sound, offer variable speed controls, and have built-in audio instructions. The advanced player also enables bookmarking and navigation, allowing readers to skip to different parts of a book. Accessories for the digital talking-book machines include lightweight headphones, a pillow speaker, adapters to facilitate the use of commercial USB flash drives, and a breath switch. Readers with significant hearing loss may request amplifier headphones.
Volunteers contribute important services to the NLS program in the areas of braille transcription and proofreading, audiobook production, library service, and machine repair. NLS sponsors free correspondence courses leading to certification in braille transcribing (literary, music, and mathematics) and braille proofreading. Local recording groups may request training in audiobook production, and network libraries engage volunteers in a variety of service maintenance projects. National volunteer groups also assist network libraries in repairing playback equipment.
NLS and its cooperating libraries respond to questions about various aspects of blindness and physical disabilities. This free service is available to individuals, organizations, and libraries. Publications resulting from such queries are available for free in a variety of formats. For a list of what is available, visit www.loc.gov/nls/reference/index.html.
The NLS consumer relations officer maintains regular contact with consumer groups and individual users of the program to identify and resolve service problems and to ensure that the needs of NLS patrons are met. NLS also meets biennially with two advisory groups that include patrons, members of consumer organizations, and network librarians: the Collection Development Advisory Group and the National Audio Equipment Advisory Committee. These groups provide critical feedback that helps shape NLS policy in providing service to its patrons.
Find Out More . . .
If you or someone you know is interested in receiving more information about the braille and talking-book program, call 1-888-NLS-READ (1-888-657-7323) toll-free and follow the prompts to be connected to your local braille and talking-book library, or select “Find a Library” on the NLS home page, www.loc.gov/nls. You also may connect to your nearest cooperating library through the home page by selecting the “Talking Books: Request More Information” icon. Complete and submit the form and someone from your local library will contact you. If you prefer, you may write to: Reference Section, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20542.