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/who-we-are. To contact the NLS network library in your state, visit Find Your Library or call 888-NLS-READ (888-657-7323).
Historical Perspective: The surprising afterlife of the NLS C-1 cassette player
The last NLS-produced cassette machine rolled off the production line in 2007; the last NLS cassette book followed a few years later. The digital future, after all, had come: digital talking-book machines with fewer moving parts offered more reliable functionality, and digital talking-book cartridges let patrons fit entire series’ worth of reading material into the palms of their hands.
So why, nearly 15 years later, are C-1 cassette players—first developed in 1981—a hot commodity on the black market (even though they remain US Government property intended for use only by registered patrons of the NLS program)? Because they offer functionality that no commercially produced player has—functionality with unexpected appeal to experimental musicians.
As with its records in the 1930s, NLS chose to use a non-standard, slower format for its cassette tapes. Issuing books at 1 7/8 ips—the standard for commercial music—would have required shipping boxes of tapes for each book. Instead, NLS recorded at 15/16 ips, with four monaural tracks per cassette, allowing each cassette to hold up to six hours of recorded material.
NLS understood, however, that its patrons might also want to play cassettes procured from other sources, so the C-1 offered a simple switch that allowed users to switch between 1 7/8 ips playback and 15/16 ips playback. It also had a variable speed control slider that allowed patrons to read books faster if they desired—a technological innovation that NLS had been experimenting with since the 1960s.
“Time-scale modification,” the late NLS engineer Lloyd Rasmussen once said, “is a complex problem with several fundamentally different approaches. We were interested in trying all of them.” That put NLS at the forefront of technology in an era when music equipment producers saw little purpose or value in methods to speed up sound without distorting it.
Today, the digital talking-book machine uses a digital signal-processing algorithm to speed up and slow down sound, but in the cassette-book era, the methods were all analogue. Ambient and low-fi music aficionados prize the unique distortions created through those analogue methods.
Add in the ability to alter tone with the flick of another slider, and the fact that using the side-control switch designed for four-sided NLS tapes on standard two-sided tapes allows them to be played backwards, and you have a machine that can twist and alter music in ways its creators never imagined. It even has an auxiliary input port, allowing users to feed sound into it from non-cassette sources. The results are eerie, haunting, compelling—and a tribute to the ingenuity of NLS engineers.
Historical Perspective: the story of love and remembrance behind NLS’s earliest talking books
Search for information on Isabelle Archer Dyer, and you’ll find almost nothing about the woman in question—not even her date of birth. But you will learn a great deal about the early days of the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. That’s because for more than a decade in the 1930s and 1940s, every talking book issued bore the inscription “Isabelle Archer Dyer Memorial Record.”
How did this woman, who died in 1930, become so entangled in the history of NLS? The answer has to do with patents and the early technological development of recorded sound.
When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in the 1870s, he quickly realized its potential for improving the lives of the blind. He published a list of possible uses in the North American Review in June 1878, and the second item on the list was “Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.” (“Reproduction of music” ranked fourth.)
In 1878, though, this was at best a dream. Edison’s early recordings, made on tinfoil, captured seconds of sound and could be played only a few times before being worn beyond usefulness. The wax cylinders and disks that followed in the later decades of the nineteenth century were more durable but still held only a few minutes of sound. At 78 rpm, the industry standard, a 12-inch disk could hold at most five minutes per side.
Frank L. Dyer had a firsthand view of the early recording industry from his position as Edison’s personal lawyer. He is perhaps best known for leading the charge to protect Edison’s film-related patents in the early 20th century as president of the Motion Picture Patents Company, which held a monopoly on American motion picture production for a decade before being dissolved by an antitrust lawsuit in 1918. But he was also an inventor in his own right—and the conclusive loss of that legal battle left him with time on his hands to pursue his more mechanical interests.
In 1924, Dyer filed a patent application for a “Talking-Machine Record.” “As now made,” he explained in the filing, “talking machine records permit the recording of sounds over a very limited period of time. . . . What I propose by my present improvements, is to very greatly extend the capacity of a record of the present standard size by obtaining thereon a record of sounds of an hour or more.”
The improvements in question were not technically complicated; they consisted of making the record groves thinner than those of existing records and slowing the playing speed from 78 rpm to 33 1/3 rpm. But the potential utility of the improved record was immense. Dyer, perhaps remembering Edison’s dreams from 45 years earlier, was quick to note in his application that “my improved record will be especially acceptable to the blind, to whom reading by existing methods is tedious and unsatisfactory.”
Dyer was not the only one to reach this conclusion. Robert B. Irwin, executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind, learned of the patent filing in 1924 and was instantly intrigued. He befriended Dyer, who in the early 1930s agreed to give the AFB free right to use his patent. “Mr. Dyer imposed only one condition,” Irwin wrote later in his 1955 memoir, As I Saw It: “that every Talking Book record that used his patented method should bear the legend ‘Isabelle Archer Dyer Memorial Record’ in honor of his deceased wife.”
Less friendly to commercial interests, Dyer went on to sue Sound Studios of New York and others for royalties on all recordings made at 33 1/3 rpm. This succeeded no better than his early attempts to defend Edison’s film monopoly, and in an October 1935 decision Judge John P. Nields ultimately declared his patent invalid on the grounds that it was “simple and obvious.” The legal battles, however, may have slowed the adoption of 33 1/3 rpm recordings in the commercial world.
They had no impact on the AFB, which went on stamping “Isabelle Archer Dyer Memorial Record” on all its disks long after the patent was invalidated. In 1934, the talking book was sufficiently well established in the blind community that Congress for the first time appropriated funds for the Library of Congress to purchase recordings from AFB as well as braille volumes. The National Library Service would continue to circulate books on 33 1/3 rpm records until 1958, when it began experimenting with even slower speeds—a year before the last commercial 78 rpm record rolled off the production line in the US, leaving 33 1/3 rpm the dominant format for recorded music.
Dyer didn’t live to see it. He died in 1941 at the age of 70. But like his wife, he found immortality of a sort through NLS. His obituary in the New York Times says nothing of his legal failures, but simply notes him as Edison’s biographer and the “deviser of the ‘Talking Book’ for the blind.”
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
90th kick off with jazz pianist Matthew Whitaker
Enjoy the free virtual concert featuring jazz pianist and NLS patron Matthew Whitaker on the Library of Congress YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/4X5NhVwLzM4 External.
The concert kicked off the NLS 90th anniversary celebration on the evening of March 3 and was preceded by an interview with Whitaker 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, American thriller writer and underwater explorer (died 2020)
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.
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.
World's Fair (DB22972) - Semi-autobiographical story of a boy growing up in the Bronx that culminates in the 1939 World’s Fair.
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)
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.
John le Carré
Born David John Moore Cornwell, English spy novelist (died 2020)
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.
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.
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.
Canadian short story writer
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)
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.
English novelist (died 2023)
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
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 Unfolding Years, her 1950 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. According to That All May Read: Library Service for Blind and Physically Handicapped People, after much discussion, the American Association of Workers for the Blind and the American Association of Instructors of the Blind settled on a single braille code in 1918. 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.
The 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,” Congressman Paul J. Kvale of Minnesota reported a constituent complaining during a May 1930 Congressional hearing. “At one time it was seriously contemplated giving us an expurgated edition of the Bible.”
Because, as Representative Frederick C. Hicks put it in a 1920 Congressional hearing, “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. As summarized in Frances Koestler's The Unseen Minority, 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 on February 28, 1931, 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.
Ninety-plus 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.
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.
Local libraries in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Salem, Oregon, join the NLS Network.
The following local libraries join the NLS Network: Faribault, Minnesota; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Salt Lake City, Utah.
Local libraries in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Los Angeles, California, join the NLS Network.
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.
Daytona Beach, Florida, joins the NLS Network.
An amendment to the Pratt-Smoot Act makes children eligible for the service.
Raleigh, North Carolina, joins the NLS Network.
Richmond, Virginia, joins the NLS Network.
Des Moines, Iowa, joins the NLS Network.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, joins the NLS Network.
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.
Montgomery, Alabama, joins the NLS Network.
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.
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.
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.
The following local libraries join the NLS Network: Pierre, South Dakota; Frankfort, Kentucky; and Little Rock, Arkansas.
The following local libraries join the NLS Network: Concord, New Hampshire; Phoenix, Arizona; Nashville, Tennessee; Jackson, Mississippi; and Emporia, Kansas.
Local libraries in Indianapolis, Dover, Delaware, and Charleston, West Virginia, join the NLS Network.
Augusta, Maine, joins the NLS Network.
The NLS recording studio opens. The local libraries in Boise, Idaho, and Columbia, South Carolina, join the NLS Network.
San Juan, Puerto Rico, joins the NLS Network.
Local libraries in Anchorage, Alaska, and Montpelier, Vermont, join the NLS Network.
The Library of Congress’s Division for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is renamed the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
Bismarck, North Dakota, joins the NLS Network.
The last NLS cassette book machine is produced on February 17. Nearly 1.5 million cassette book machines had been distributed since 1969.
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.
NLS distributes its first title on digital cartridge—Suze Orman’s 2009 Action Plan.
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.
NLS releases a BARD app for iOS devices. That was followed in 2015 by a BARD app for Android devices.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
NLS pilots Braille-on-Demand, in which patrons can choose each month to have one of the 16,000-plus electronic braille books on BARD embossed in hard-copy braille, to keep indefinitely for their personal use. The American Foundation for the Blind presents longtime NLS staff member Judy Dixon, internationally known for her braille advocacy, with the Migel Medal. Social media star Molly Burke and disability rights activist Judith Heumann are among the featured speakers at NLS’s biennial annual conference, held virtually in May. A new national advertising campaign begins in October with promoted keywords on Internet search engines and advertising and paid promotions on social media and other channels.
The year begins with the launch of a 24-page Spanish-language website, which provides general program information and lists of resources in Spanish. NLS marks two milestones in the spring: the 100,000th download of audio and braille materials acquired from other countries under the Marrakesh Treaty and the 500th veteran enrolled under its Rapid Sign-up partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs.