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90th Anniversary of NLS

Dr. Carla Hayden congratulates NLS on its 90th Anniversary

Nine decades of ensuring that all may read

NLS is pleased to have you join us in celebrating our 90th anniversary.

On March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed the Pratt-Smoot Act, which established what is now known as the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, or NLS, and its nationwide network of libraries. Today, that network serves residents of all 50 states and US territories, plus US citizens overseas.

Below you can find, among other content, a timeline of significant events and developments in our history. But this year’s celebration isn’t just about the past. It’s about the future, too—a future in which NLS is making its services more widely available and more convenient for its patrons to use. Although NLS is now a nonagenarian, our modernization efforts are keeping us young and up to date, and helping us fulfill our mission—“That All May Read”—better than ever before.

If you have questions about NLS, our eligibility requirements, or how to enroll, you can find some answers at www.loc.gov/nls/about. To contact the NLS network library in your state, visit Find Your Library or call 888-NLS-READ (888-657-7323).

Congress offered congratulations to NLS

Several Members of Congress offered congratulations to NLS on our 90th anniversary, entering their remarks in the Congressional Record. We greatly appreciate their kind words about NLS service and the work done by our NLS network libraries:

Sen. Roy Blunt: CREC-2021-03-03-pt1-PgS1023.pdf
Rep. Rodney Davis: CREC-2021-03-02-pt1-PgE189-6.pdf
Rep. Zoe Lofgren: CREC-2021-03-02-pt1-PgE192.pdf
Sen. Amy Klobuchar: CREC-2021-03-01-pt1-PgS952-2.pdf

NLS kicked off its 90th with jazz pianist Matthew Whitaker

Everyone can still enjoy the free virtual concert featuring jazz pianist and NLS patron Matthew Whitaker on the Library of Congress YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/c/loc External.

The concert kicked off the NLS 90th anniversary celebration on the evening of March 3 and was preceded by an interview with Whitaker, which is also available on YouTube. For more information about Matthew Whitaker, check out the NLS Music Notes blog at https://blogs.loc.gov/nls-music-notes or the Library of Congress event page at https://go.usa.gov/xsCzy External.

Authors born the same year as NLS

1931. Herbert Hoover was in the White House. “The Star Spangled Banner” became the national anthem. Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” topped the charts. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig led the major leagues with 46 home runs. Al Capone went to prison. And the Great Depression was raging.

NLS was born that year, too – and so were these famous authors listed below. They and their body of work developed as NLS did, with attention to advancements in technology, creation of communities served, betterment of individuals, and love of adventure and, sometimes, just plain fun.

  • Clive Cussler

    Clive Cussler, American thriller writer and underwater explorer (died 2020)

    Pacific Vortex! (DB51151) and The Mediterranean Caper (BR09620, DB38369) – First two volumes of the series of thrillers about Dirk Pitt, an undersea explorer and alter ego of Clive Cussler.

    Serpent: A Novel from the Numa Files (DB48719) and Blue Gold: A Novel from the Numa Files (DB50937) – The first two books in the Numa Files series, both written with Paul Kemprecos. Cussler founded the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), a foundation dedicated to preserving our maritime heritage through the discovery, archaeological survey and conservation of shipwreck artifacts. He has written both fiction and nonfiction about its work.

    The Sea Hunters (DB43934) and The Sea Hunters II (DB57292) – Author and colleagues from NUMA document the discovery or survey of famous shipwrecks in deep waters, both written with Craig Dirgo.

  • E.L. Doctorow

    American author (died 2015)

    Billy Bathgate (DB29022) – Billy Bathgate travels into the rural underworld in Depression-era America with Dutch Schultz, the Prohibition beer baron.

    Doctorow: Collected Stories (DB87349) – Fifteen stories, dating from the 1960s to the early twenty-first century, selected, revised and placed in order by the author shortly before his death in 2015.

    The March (DB60676) – This Civil War saga portrays the complex nature of General William Tecumseh Sherman.

    Ragtime (BR18664, DB44378) – In 1906, a ragtime musician from Harlem falls victim to racist vandalism and seeks redress.

    World’s Fair (DB22972) – Semi-autobiographical story of a boy growing up in the Bronx that culminates in the 1939 World’s Fair.

  • Dr. Seuss

    Born “Ted” Geisel, American children’s book author/illustrator (died 1991)

    The Cat in the Hat and Other Dr. Seuss Favorites (DB90643) – Eleven humorous Dr. Seuss stories, which include these favorites: The Cat in the Hat (also available as BR13461 and PRINT/BRAILLE BR16724), The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (also available as BR13451 and PRINT/BRAILLE BR04655), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (also available as BR16316 and PRINT/BRAILLE BR23192), Horton Hears a Who! (also available as PRINT/BRAILLE BR03886) and Horton Hatches the Egg (also available as PRINT/BRAILLE BR08950)

    Green Eggs and Ham and Other Servings of Dr. Seuss (DB90642) – Nine silly Dr. Seuss stories, which include these favorites: Green Eggs and Ham (also available as BR13450 and PRINT/BRAILLE BR16721), Dr. Seuss’s ABC (also available as BR15320 and PRINT/BRAILLE BR16721), One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (also available as BR16379 and PRINT/BRAILLE BR13073) and Hop on Pop (also available as PRINT/BRAILLE BR16725)

  • William Goldman

    American novelist and screenwriter (died 2018)

    Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View Of Hollywood and Screenwriting (DB21633) and Which Lie Did I Tell? or, More Adventures in the Screentrade (DB50163) – Both considered required reading for screenwriters.

    Heat (DB23285) – Off-beat detective works for friends and clients as investigator, bodyguard or avenger.

    Marathon Man (DB08033) – Former Rhodes Scholar dreams of becoming a great marathon man and an accomplished intellectual until a mysterious man changes his orderly life to one of danger.

    The Princess Bride (BR20973, DB58817) – This thirtieth-anniversary edition of the classic fairy tale spoof, made into the famous movie, features a 2003 introduction.

  • John le Carré

    Born David John Moore Cornwell, English spy novelist (died 2020)

    The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (BR01605, DB16772) – The success of this book allowed le Carré to quit working as a diplomat and a spy to become a full-time writer.

    Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (DB38219), The Honourable Schoolboy (DB10835), and Smiley’s People (DB15082) – The Karla Trilogy in which fat and frumpy George Smiley, conceived by Le Carré as the anti-James Bond, challenges his Soviet counterpart.

    The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (DB86596) – John Le Carré narrates his memoir.

    John Le Carré: The Biography (DB84295) – Biographer utilizes exclusive access to le Carré himself, his private archive and those closest to him to detail the novelist’s life.

  • Toni Morrison

    American writer and Nobel Prize winner (died 2019)

    The Bluest Eye (BR12618, DB49914) – Originally published in 1970, Toni Morrison’s first novel about an African American girl who longs to have the bluest eye was reissued in 1993 with a new afterword by the author.

    God Help the Child (DB81605) – Toni Morrison narrates this novel about dark secrets emerging from a successful woman’s past.

    Jazz (BR09346, DB44374) – Murder and reconciliation in Harlem in the 1920s.

    A Mercy (BR18095, DB69148) – Examines the roots of racism in colonial North America through the story of Florens, a young enslaved girl.

    The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations (DB94081) – Collection of forty-three essays. Topics include racism and fascism, literature, women, Harlem and Martin Luther King Jr.

    Sula (BR09661, DB08549) – Follows two friends from childhood to old age and death.

  • Alice Munro

    Canadian short story writer

    Selected Stories, 1961-1994 (BR10819, DB43878) and Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 (DB80546)

    Dear Life: Stories (BR19775, DB75831) – Fourteen short stories including four semi-autobiographic tales set in Ontario. Munro told an interviewer this collection, her 14th, would be the last.

    Runaway: Stories (BR15771, DB59521) – Eight short stories about women of all ages and circumstances. Pedro Almodovar’s mystery-drama film Julieta (2016) is based on three stories in Runaway.

    Lives of Girls and Women (DB42708) – Series of interrelated stories about a young girl coming-of-age in the 1940s.

    Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories (DB53585) – Nine short stories exploring conflicting emotions and introspection. The Canadian film Away from Her is based on the story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” from this collection.

  • Janwillem van de Wetering

    Dutch–American crime writer (died 2008)

    Outsider in Amsterdam (DB43181) and Tumbleweed (DB45318) – First two volumes in a series of thrillers about Detective Grijpstra and Sergeant De Gier of the Amsterdam police.

    The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery (DB10589) – Author discovers that Zen offers no dramatic revelations or salvation and that the quest for peace is truly within himself.

    Inspector Saito’s Small Satori (DB23147) – Eleven linked stories set in the Japanese city Kyoto, where the author once spent time in a Zen monastery.

    The Sergeant’s Cat and Other Stories (DB27291) – Most of the stories feature the adventures of the two Amsterdam police officers. Others reflect the author’s interest in Zen and ecology.

  • Fay Weldon

    English novelist

    Before the War (DB02899) – Plain, intelligent, and wealthy, Vivien asks for the hand of a handsome and charismatic man whose finances are running thin.

    Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen (DB25657) – Sixteen letters to a young niece in which Weldon makes shrewd remarks on women, feminism, the novel as an art form, life and love, the profession of writing and, especially, Jane Austen.

    The Life and Loves of a ‘She-Devil’ (DB22243) – A witty, wicked black comedy of marriage and power.

    Moon over Minneapolis, or, Why She Couldn’t Stay (DB36470) – Nineteen short stories about the multiple roles played by contemporary women.

    Wicked Women: Stories (DB44965) – Twenty short stories written between 1972 and 1997 dealing with wicked women, wicked men, wicked children and trips to the therapist.

Historical Perspective: World War One blinded veterans and the founding of NLS

Blind woman in Red Cross uniform reads braille book
Adelia Hoyt. Red Cross Blind Magazine, c. 1919.

Anyone who has looked at the NLS application for service knows that by statute NLS gives preference in lending to veterans. That’s been true since its creation in 1931. But why? The answer goes back to World War I.

“In the summer of 1918,” wrote Adelia Hoyt in her memoir about working for the Library of Congress Reading Room for the Blind, “a stream of wounded servicemen was steadily drifting back to our shores…. Among them all, none seemed more in need of help and sympathy than those blinded in battle.” The problem, Hoyt noted, was that there was nothing for them to read.

There were two reasons for that. First, at the time there were many competing systems of tactile writing across the United States, from New York Point to Line Type. American Braille existed; so did English Braille. After much discussion, the American Association of Workers for the Blind had settled on a single braille code in 1917, but agreeing on a code did not make reading material instantly appear.

Second, many of the existing works in all the various forms of tactile writing were intended for children. Since 1879, Congress had appropriated funds for the American Printing House to produce educational materials, but no such provision existed to furnish books explicitly for adults.

Woman standing in winter coat, hat, and glovesThe result was unsatisfying for adult readers. “Nothing but what they conceive to be the cleanest literature, no matter how insipid, can come under our fingers,” a constituent once complained to Congressman Paul J. Kvale of Minnesota. “At one time it was seriously contemplated giving us an expurgated edition of the Bible.”

Because “the boys who were blinded in the recent war” were the focus of Congress’s concern, the first attempt to remedy the problem involved appropriating funds for the United States Veterans’ Bureau to buy books. Between 1924 and 1927, the American Printing House for the Blind was contracted to produce 89 titles specifically for blind soldiers.

Eventually, however, Congress decided that selecting books was outside the expertise of the Veterans’ Bureau. Several competing alternative plans for funding books for the adult blind were advanced in a fight that became surprisingly intense. But Congressman Daniel Reed of New York spoke for many of his colleagues when, after months of debate, he reminded the House that “no service would be rendered to the blind by entering into any controversy at this time as to just what we should do” and encouraged a swift resolution.

World War I had ended 13 years before, but its veterans still played a central role in his rhetoric. “The blind population of this country, especially in view of the number of soldiers who were made blind by the war, should receive more consideration than has been given to them,” Reed concluded. “I think they are entitled to it.”

Ultimately, the Pratt-Smoot bill was the proposal that carried the day. “Several agencies besides the Library of Congress have been suggested,” bill sponsor Representative Ruth Pratt explained in the final debate, “but I do not know any agency better designed to accomplish this end than the great national library.”

The Library of Congress had hosted a small reading room for blind visitors since 1897, where Adelia Hoyt had once toiled to support newly returned veterans in the 1910s. With the passage of the Pratt-Smoot bill, that room would transform from an institution with limited geographic reach into a truly National Library Service.

Two black and white images. Image one: Two men sit at a table studying braille with a woman. One is reading a braille book, while the other is using a braillewriter. Image two: Three men sit at separate desks in front of typewriters while a fourth man supervises.
“Reading and Writing Are Not Lost Arts to Blinded Men — At the Military Hospital for Blinded Men at Baltimore, this soldier is learning to substitute touch for sight in the process of reading. The letters are formed by dots raised in the surface of the paper. The sailor is writing in raised characters by the aid of a simple machine. A blinded man can learn in a short time to operate, without making mistakes, the regular standard typewriter. He is thus able again to correspond with his mother, wife, sweetheart, or friends.” American Red Cross poster, 1919.

Ninety years of NLS history

The timeline below marks significant events and developments in NLS history, including advancements in the use of technology, expansion of the communities served and additions to the network of cooperating libraries.

  • 1931

    On March 3, President Hoover signs the Pratt-Smoot Act, which establishes a national library program administered by the Library of Congress—what is known today as NLS.  The following local libraries join the NLS Network: Albany, New York; Atlanta, Georgia; Austin, Texas; Springfield, Illinois; Cincinnati, Ohio; Cleveland, Ohio; Denver, Colorado; Wayne, Michigan; Honolulu, Hawaii; New York, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Sacramento, California; Lansing, Michigan; Jefferson, Missouri; Seattle, Washington; Washington, DC; Watertown, Massachusetts; and Lincoln, Nebraska.

  • 1932

    Local libraries in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Salem, Oregon, join the NLS Network.

  • 1933

    The following local libraries join the NLS Network: Faribault, Minnesota; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Salt Lake City, Utah.

  • 1934

    Local libraries in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Los Angeles, California, join the NLS Network.

  • 1935

    Twenty-seven book titles—including the four Christian Gospels, historical documents, and a variety of Shakespeare’s works—are available through the program on long-playing records. Records in various forms would continue to be used for more than 50 years.

  • 1950

    Daytona Beach, Florida, joins the NLS Network.

  • 1952

    An amendment to the Pratt-Smoot Act makes children eligible for the service.

  • 1958

    Raleigh, North Carolina, joins the NLS Network.

  • 1959

    Richmond, Virginia, joins the NLS Network.

  • 1960

    Des Moines, Iowa, joins the NLS Network.

  • 1961

    Milwaukee, Wisconsin, joins the NLS Network.

  • 1962

    The program broadens again, providing musical scores and other instructional music materials. Today, NLS has the world’s largest collection of braille and large-print music scores and audio materials on instruction and music appreciation.

  • 1965

    Montgomery, Alabama, joins the NLS Network.

  • 1966

    Congress passes legislation extending free library service to people with physical disabilities. Local Libraries in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Providence, Rhode Island, join the NLS Network.

  • 1967

    NLS headquarters moves from Capitol Hill to its current location at 1291 Taylor St. NW in Washington’s Petworth neighborhood. The following local libraries join the NLS Network: Santa Fe, New Mexico; Providence, Rhode Island; and Trenton, New Jersey.

  • 1968

    Audiocassettes are added to the talking-book program and eventually replace records and open-reel tapes. The following local libraries join the NLS Network: Helena, Montana; St. Croix, Virgin Islands; Baltimore, Maryland; Rocky Hill, Connecticut; and Carson City, Nevada.

  • 1969

    The following local libraries join the NLS Network: Pierre, South Dakota; Frankfort, Kentucky; and Little Rock, Arkansas.

  • 1970

    The following local libraries join the NLS Network: Concord, New Hampshire; Phoenix, Arizona; Nashville, Tennessee; Jackson, Mississippi; and Emporia, Kansas.

  • 1971

    Local libraries in Indianapolis, Dover, Delaware, and Charleston, West Virginia, join the NLS Network.

  • 1972

    Augusta, Maine, joins the NLS Network.

  • 1973

    The NLS recording studio opens. The local libraries in Boise, Idaho, and Columbia, South Carolina, join the NLS Network.

  • 1975

    San Juan, Puerto Rico, joins the NLS Network.

  • 1976

    Local libraries in Anchorage, Alaska, and Montpelier, Vermont, join the NLS Network.

  • 1978

    The Library of Congress’s Division for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is renamed the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

  • 1995

    Bismarck, North Dakota, joins the NLS Network.

  • 2007

    The last NLS cassette book machine is produced on February 17. Nearly 1.5 million cassette book machines had been distributed since 1969.

  • 2008

    Digital talking-book players start replacing analog cassette players. A pilot test of BARD—the Braille and Audio Reading Download service—begins. The following year, BARD becomes available to all patrons.

  • 2009

    NLS distributes its first title on digital cartridge—Suze Orman’s 2009 Action Plan.

  • 2011

    The last analog cassette title, American Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes, is shipped to network libraries in January. From 1970 to 2011, NLS produced 57,245 talking-book titles on cassettes and distributed more than 49 million copies to network libraries.

  • 2013

    NLS releases a BARD app for iOS devices. That was followed in 2015 by a BARD app for Android devices.

  • 2014

    The first network-produced audio books are added to BARD. (Network-produced eBraille books had been on BARD since it merged with Web-Braille in 2012.)

  • 2015

    NLS reaches agreements with five commercial audiobook publishers to convert their unabridged recordings to NLS digital talking books. This gives patrons access to a wider—and more up-to-the-minute—selection of books.

  • 2016

    An amendment to the Pratt-Smoot Act allows NLS to provide playback equipment in all formats, clearing the way for NLS to begin developing a refreshable braille display for patrons.

  • 2017

    NLS completes the conversion of more than 40,000 older cassette books in its collection to digital audio, making them available for patrons to download on BARD.

  • 2019

    The United States becomes a party to the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled, which facilitates the cross-border exchange of books in accessible formats and expands the number of foreign-language books available to NLS patrons. Changes are made to NLS’s authorizing legislation to conform to the treaty and allow NLS to fully participate. On October 1, 2019, NLS is renamed the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled.

  • 2020

    Pilot testing of refreshable braille displays, or eReaders, produced for NLS begins. Distribution of eReaders will expand during 2021, fulfilling NLS’s longtime goal of providing a device to patrons who read braille but can’t afford expensive commercial refreshable braille displays. By September, more than half of NLS’s network libraries are using Duplication on Demand (DoD), allowing them to be more responsive to patron requests and include multiple titles on one cartridge. Use of the DoD system also positions libraries to provide this improved service while requiring less room for collection storage. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, NLS holds its 2020 biennial conference virtually in December, with more than 400 participants.

  • 2021

    NLS finalizes changes to regulatory language to expand its list of certifying authorities to include additional educational professionals, thus easing access to NLS services for individuals with reading disabilities such as dyslexia. In a major milestone for NLS’s modernization efforts, BARD is moved to a cloud environment. This major infrastructure enhancement improves capacity and download speeds and positions the BARD system to support future NLS devices such as voice navigation-enabled smartphones, smart speakers, refreshable braille displays, and a new Digital Talking Book Machine.

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