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News January-March 2020

NLS national conference rescheduled

Just as News was going to press, NLS announced that its national conference, originally scheduled for mid-May in Lincoln, Nebraska, had been rescheduled. The 2020 National Conference of Librarians Serving Blind and Print Disabled Individuals is now set for mid-September.

“Many of our network libraries around the country are closing or cutting back hours in response to the COVID-19 outbreak,” NLS Director Karen Keninger said on March 16. “NLS is open, as of today, but many of our employees are teleworking. Flights are being canceled, and gatherings the size of our national conference are being discouraged.

“Rather than wait, we decided the best decision was to go ahead and announce the postponement now. Hopefully, the actions that governments, businesses and individuals are taking will help things get back to normal soon.”


2020 National Conference highlights access, discovery and engagement

Deafblind lawyer, author will be keynote speaker

By Claire Rojstaczer
Seven years ago, when NLS and Perkins School for the Blind co-hosted the Braille Summit in Watertown, Massachusetts, Harvard Law student Haben Girma spoke as a panelist about her experiences as a deafblind braille reader. She shared passionately about the critical role of braille in her life, from being introduced to the braille alphabet at age six to learning how to use braille displays paired with Bluetooth keyboards to talk to friends and colleagues in noisy restaurants.

Girma is looking forward to returning to the NLS stage—as a full-fledged lawyer now and the keynote speaker at the 2020 National Conference of Librarians Serving Blind and Print Disabled Individuals.Outdoor portrait of Haben Girma

The braille landscape has changed in some significant ways since 2013, Girma says. “Braille displays are more widely available now than they were in the past. But we still have a long way to go to make digital and hardcopy braille more affordable,” she says, noting that cost is a major barrier to information access for blind and deafblind individuals.

Her own career has been devoted to bringing down those barriers. “I became a lawyer to advocate for the disability community,” she says. Her work as a litigator included successfully representing the National Federation of the Blind in a lawsuit against book subscription service Scribd over the inaccessibility of its online offerings.

Like NLS, Girma believes literacy and access to literature are essential for all individuals. “Reading allowed me to learn about lives different from my own. Discovering NLS when I was in middle school dramatically increased my access to stories, books and the world. I gained instant access to digital books and practiced patience while waiting for hardcopy braille books to arrive in the mail.”

NLS, Bookshare and other sources also gave Girma the resources she needed to thrive at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and Harvard. More recently, her reading has focused on preparing for her own literary pursuits. Her memoir, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law (available from NLS as BR22702 and DB96188), was published in 2019. “I read numerous memoirs while writing my book to give me a sense for the writing strategies that work well,” she says.

Today, Girma no longer practices law. “I focus on education-based advocacy,” she explains, traveling around the globe to give presentations about inclusive design, leadership, and communication strategies. This spring, that means scheduled stops in Kenya, Australia, New Zealand, Canada—and Lincoln, Nebraska. “This will be my first trip to Nebraska,” she says. “I’m looking forward to the NLS conference and any surprises in store for us!”

Blinded veteran’s story helps NLS spread the word to others who have served

Man and dog rest on bench outdoors
Retired California state judge David Szumowski and his guide dog Speedwell take a break during a walk by the beach.

By Mark Layman
First Lt. David Szumowski had been in Vietnam only 40 days when the tank platoon he led was attacked during a recovery mission near the Michelin rubber plantation northwest of Saigon.

His tank took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade, and the fragmentation wounds left Szumowski totally blind. Still, he continued to lead his troops with the help of an overhead helicopter until the mission was completed.

Szumowski returned home a hero, with a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, the Purple Heart, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. But his plans for a military career were shattered, and he had a tough road of recovery and rehabilitation ahead.

He spent the spring and summer of 1969 at Walter Reed Medical Center, followed by three months at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital. That’s when he was introduced to NLS, the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled.

In the hospital, “I started reading a lot—it was a way to kill time,” Szumowski recalls. One of the first NLS audio books he read was a time-killer for sure: Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which—in 1969—was available on a set of 43 16-rpm records. (Now the book can be downloaded and played on the portable NLS digital talking-book machine or on a personal smart device using the NLS BARD Mobile app.)

Szumowski used his veterans benefits to attend the University of Denver law school, but after he graduated in 1973, he struggled to adjust to life without sight. “I was pretty much in a cocoon” before that, he told Freedom Scientific’s “FSCast” podcast last fall. “It was after I finished law school and had a lot of time on my hands that some of the stresses that one would think go with that kind of traumatic injury started to rear up their ugly heads.”

He left Denver and worked for a time as a benefits counselor for the VA in San Diego, California, and later helped start the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program there. He also served as national president of the Blinded Veterans Association.

Eventually, though, he decided “I didn’t want to be a professional veteran.” Dusting off his law degree, he went on to be a prosecutor in the San Diego District Attorney’s office and then a San Diego County Superior Court judge—a position he held for 18 years until he retired in 2016.

In the five decades since losing his sight, Szumowski has read thousands of books (“I stopped counting long ago at 2,000,” he says), many of them from NLS’s extensive collection.

Now that he’sBook cover showing man and dog in shadow facing bright outside retired, Szumowski tries to read two or three books each week. He’s also told his own story in Reach for More: A Journey from Loss to Love and Fulfillment. The book is available commercially in print and audio and will be added to the NLS collection in audio later this year.

“It’s pretty much my memoir,” he told “FSCast,” “from growing up in upstate New York and going to college at the University of Richmond in Virginia, my time in the army, and then the struggles I had coming back and finally landing on my feet in the legal profession, up through my retirement as a judge.

By law, veterans like Szumowski—whether or not their blindness or disability is service-related—receive priority service from NLS. In the past few years, NLS has stepped up its outreach to veterans. Again this year, NLS will send representatives to the Disabled American Veterans, Blinded Veterans Association and American Legion national conferences. NLS staff wrote a blog post that featured Szumowski’s story for the Department of Veterans Affairs. And each month an NLS representative meets with veterans who are starting congressional fellowships in Washington, DC, under the auspices of the Wounded Warrior Project.

This year’s NLS National Conference in Lincoln, Nebraska, will have two events focused on veterans. A presentation on Partnering with Veterans Services is scheduled for one of the general sessions, and a training session will highlight ways that NLS network libraries can work with the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project to conduct outreach in their communities.

Sharing stories like Szumowski’s are another important way NLS spreads the word about the ways it can help people who have vision loss or a disability.

What impact has NLS had on Szumowski’s life? “It provides an opportunity for me to learn things I’d like to learn and travel to places through reading that I’d otherwise never get to see,” he says. “It’s also been a tremendous source of pleasure for me.”

Resources from NLS online

The NLS publication Resources for Disabled Veterans was updated in 2019 and includes contact information for organizations that help veterans with employment and rehabilitation, financial and legal matters, physical and psychological health and more. It’s available to NLS patrons and the general public at

You will also find guides there on topics such as travel and recreation for people who are visually impaired, accessible video games, and where to get Bibles and other sacred writings in audio, braille and large print.

Latest BARD Mobile iOS update includes many user-friendly features

NLS in February released a major update to its BARD Mobile iOS app that adds many features to enhance users’ experience.

The BARD Mobile app, introduced in 2013, allows patrons to download books from the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download website to their smart devices. There are versions of the app for both iOS and Android devices.

“A lot of these features appeared first in BARD Express,” BARD Operations Supervisor Don Olson says. (BARD Express is a Windows-based tool to simplify searching for, downloading and transferring audio books from the BARD website to a cartridge or flash drive for playback in a digital player.) “Now we’re bringing many of these features into BARD Mobile for iOS. In the future we’ll be adding many of them to BARD Mobile for Android as well.”

The new features include:

Simultaneous downloads: Users can now download up to three books or magazines simultaneously.

Book series subscriptions: The details screen for each book now includes a More Actions button that offers a number of other things users can do with that book, including accessing a list of other titles in the same series, by the same author or in the same subject area.

“We’ve had the ability to subscribe to magazines for quite some time, but now it comes to book series,” Olson says. “I love the ability to subscribe to my favorite series—I don’t have to go looking for updates all the time. I can subscribe and as soon as the next book is added to BARD, it will automatically get pushed to my Wish List.”

Braille autoscroll: When reading braille books, users can have their braille display scroll automatically. They have full control over the speed.

Quick switch between titles: A simple swipe allows users reading one book to see a list of other books on their device that they’ve already opened. The books are in the order of most recently read. There’s also a Recently Read button for those who don’t want to use the gesture.

Format hiding: A user who doesn’t read braille can tell BARD Mobile not to show any braille items. That works for audio, too.

AirPlay support: There’s now an AirPlay button on the Now Reading screen. From there users can send audio to any available AirPlay or connected Bluetooth device. “It’s great to be able to listen to your favorite narrators over a larger speaker,” Olson says.

Braille/audio indicator: For users who have books of different formats on their Wish List or Previous Downloads list, there’s an icon distinguishing the format—audio or braille—for each item.

The new release, Version 1.3, also includes internal updates and download reliability improvements.

The user guide for the BARD Mobile iOS app has been updated and is online at Patrons can also get assistance from their network library.

NLS recommends that users update their BARD Mobile app. However, the previous version of the app will continue to work.

More on our BARD updates

Don Olson, who leads the NLS BARD customer support team, recently appeared on the Internet radio program Tek Talk to discuss the recent BARD Mobile and BARD Express updates, as well as the ongoing NLS braille eReader pilot project. You can listen to the episode at External.

Richard Smith retires as Network Division chief

By Mark Layman
After a quarter century of service in the NLS regional network and the program’s Washington, DC,  headquarters, Richard Smith retired in January.

Smith became chief of the NLS Network Division—where he oversaw the relationship between NLS and its network of roughly 100 regional libraries, subregional libraries and advisory and outreach centers—in 2014. He also was responsible for the NLS Inventory Management, Music, Network Services and Reference sections.

Man standing holds microphone and sheet of paper while others watch
Richard Smith shares a farewell poem with NLS employees at his retirement party.

For 14 years before that, Smith was director of the Wolfner Talking Book and Braille Library in Jefferson City, Missouri. And from 1982 to 1988, he was director of special services, including the talking book and braille library, at the Louisiana State Library in Baton Rouge.

In 1993—back in the days of Compuserve and Prodigy—Smith co-authored one of the first guides to the information superhighway, Navigating the Internet. It was based on an online training course he developed the year before.

In his network career, Smith presided over the automation of the Louisiana library and the Missouri library’s transition from analog cassettes to digital cartridges and downloads.

“We separated briefly during the 1990s, but it seems like I always came back to you,” Smith wrote in a message to NLS network libraries. “We’ve experienced many changes together, from clunky [records] and cassettes, to compact digital devices, to downloadable books and refreshable braillers. Along the way, I’ve gained and lost weight and hair, but I never lost my desire to serve the people who use our services.”

Retirement is taking Smith to Pensacola, Florida, where he plans to enjoy his hobby of oil painting, join a chorus (he and his wife, Ann Roberts, met in the 1980s in the Baton Rouge Gilbert & Sullivan Society), and perhaps teach a community college class or two.

The census is counting on us!

No fooling: April 1 is Census Day, the reference point for questions on the 2020 count.

In mid-March, the Census Bureau mailed households an invitation to respond to the census. For the first time, there are three ways to respond: online, by calling a toll-free number, or by mail. In mid-April, census workers will begin visiting homes that haven’t responded to collect information in person.

Certain groups of people historically have been undercounted in the census. We want to make sure that the people NLS and its network libraries serve—people who are blind or visually impaired, or who have a disability that makes reading regular print difficult—are aware of, and participate in, this year’s 2020 census.

For more information and lots of facts and figures, visit the Census Bureau website: External.

Network Exchange

North Carolina:The North Carolina Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NCLBPH) is one of several in the NLS network to put its own spin on the NCAA basketball tournament, popularly known as March Madness.

Here’s how it works: Library staff members select books from the monthly Top 10 list on BARD, the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download, then divide them by the seasons the lists were published to create four brackets. The rounds follow the same format as March Madness: Round of 64, Round of 32, Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four and finally the Championship. During each round, patrons vote for their favorite books or, based on descriptions of the books, the ones they would prefer to read. The books with the most votes win their matches and advance to the next round.

This year, patrons who vote will be entered into a drawing after each round to win a charging-cable sorter. You can follow along on Facebook at and Twitter at

The 2019 champion, by the way: Stephen J. Cannell’s Hollywood Hills murder thriller The Prostitutes’ Ball.

Official proclamationKansas: To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kansas Talking Books, Gov. Laura Kelly proclaimed March 2–6 Talking Books Week. The State Library of Kansas in Topeka celebrat

Rack card with text "Enjoy reading again with over 90,000 free audio books"

ed with several special events. “Artistic Abilities: Celebrating Unique Talents,” an art exhibition in

the state library’s foyer, featured works by six patrons of the braille and talking book program. The library also held a Volunteer Appreciation Day and highlighted the work of Jessica Whitsitt, who has narrated more than 220 locally-produced talking books, ranging from preschool picture books to adult true crime. Topeka TV station KSNT took the opportunity to air a feature on Kansas

Talking Books; you can view it at External.

Washington Talking Book and Braille Library recently produced a new rack card for outreach to older populations.  The text reads: “Listening is Reading. Enjoy reading again with over 90,000 FREE audio books. Washington Talking Book & Braille Library. 800-542-0866. Learn more or get the application at External.”

InfoEyes: Here’s a reminder about a resource that’s been around since 2004 but many people may not know about. It’s called InfoEyes, a question-and-answer service for people with vision loss or print disabilities provided by NLS network librarians from Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Washington State.

InfoEyes assists NLS patrons, students, teachers, parents who are helping children with homework and curious general readers. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can visit the InfoEyes website at Once there, visitors can email a question by selecting a link on the home page, filling out a simple form, and clicking the “Ask” button. Visitors can also schedule live chats with InfoEyes librarians.

Newspaper story features NLS studio narrators who also work as actors

The February 14, 2020, issue of the Washington Post included a story by arts reporter Peggy McGlone on NLS Studio narrators who are also professional stage actors. Among those interviewed whose names will be familiar to NLS patrons were Laura Giannarelli, who directed George Bernard Shaw’s Candida at the Washington Stage Guild last fall, and John Lescault, who appeared in Mosaic Theater Company’s Inherit the Windbag in March. “It’s theater of the mind,” Lescault said of narrating. “It’s very intimate. You’re right there inside someone’s head.”

You can read the story online at External.

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