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News October–December 2020

Special report: The NLS 2020 national conference

Braille music proofreader retires

Network news

Mark your calendar! NLS kicks off its 90th birthday celebration on March 3, 2021, with a free virtual concert by jazz pianist Matthew Whitaker. Read more below.

Variety of screenshots of conference attendees
Collage of screenshots of conference attendees and speakers, including Michael Katzmann (bottom left), chief of the NLS Program Delivery Division, who demonstrated NLS’s new smartphone and smart speaker technology, and Haben Girma (bottom right), the conference’s keynote speaker.

NLS virtual conference spotlights “Access, Discovery, Engagement”

By Mark Layman

The 2020 National Conference of Librarians Serving Blind and Print Disabled Individuals originally was scheduled for this past spring in Lincoln, Nebraska. It finally took place December 1 through 3—on Zoom.

The biennial event brings together staff members from NLS and its network of nearly 100 cooperating libraries around the country. This year’s virtual format allowed some 400 people to attend—more than double the attendance of the 2018 conference in Nashville.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Access, Discovery, Engagement,” and it spotlighted the ways NLS is using the latest technology to modernize its operations and expand access to the program.

In her opening welcome, NLS Director Karen Keninger told librarians that when faced by challenges such as the pandemic, the question is, “Do you succumb or do you surmount? You each rose to the occasion and kept the books flowing. As a program we did surmount and in some ways are coming out more resilient and creative than when we started.”

In a flash poll taken before one session, 54 percent of the 120 respondents said this was the first time they had attended an NLS national conference.

Technology has played a big part in that. Libraries using NLS’s Duplication-on-Demand technology can put multiple books on a single cartridge—loading up avid readers with extra books and reducing the number of items the libraries have to handle and the staff needed on-site. With a little encouragement, many patrons who had been getting their books delivered by mail for years discovered BARD, the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download website, and the BARD Mobile apps. Libraries started virtual book clubs and moved events—like the Arizona Talking Book Library’s 50th birthday celebration—online.

But libraries also practiced old-fashioned customer service, calling patrons just to say hello and offer a friendly, caring ear.

“The network has exhibited creativity, resilience and resolve during the pandemic by adopting new processes, forging new alliances through collaborative sharing of resources, discovering potential for growth and finding innovative ways to provide books and programming to patrons,” NLS network consultant MaryBeth Wise said.

• • •

The conference’s keynote speaker was Haben Girma, author of Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law (available in braille and audio to NLS patrons as BR22702 and DB96188). Girma described various barriers she had encountered during her life and how one in particular set her on the path of activism.

During her freshman year at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, the cafeteria manager refused her request to provide menus in braille, saying he didn’t have time to accommodate students with special needs. (“Just to be clear,” Girma said, “deaf-blindness isn’t a special need. Everyone has to eat.”) At first she didn’t challenge him; she just went to different food stations in the cafeteria and took whatever the servers offered.

“I told myself, at least I have food. Many people around the world struggle for food. Who was I to complain? Maybe I should just be grateful and accept inferior service.” But then, “Friends reminded me—it’s my choice. It’s our choice to accept unfairness or advocate for justice.”

She researched the Americans with Disabilities Act, then went back to the cafeteria manager and said she would take legal action if he didn’t make the menus accessible—even though at age 19, “I had no idea how to do it.” The next day the manager apologized. And from then on, any blind student who enrolled at Lewis & Clark had immediate access to braille menus. The lesson Girma learned: “When I advocate, I help everyone who comes after me.”

Girma joined Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley, California, after graduating from Harvard Law School. She left in 2016 to focus on consulting, education and writing her book.

“I look forward to the pandemic ending so I can go back to dancing and surfing and exploring the world with my friends,” she said. “Helen Keller wrote several books in her life. I think I will write another book, but not in the immediate future.”

You can learn more about Haben Girma at her website, External.

• • •

NLS staff members gave updates on many new initiatives during the conference. Some of the highlights:

  • In 2021 NLS will implement a new policy that eases access to the program for individuals with reading disabilities such as dyslexia by expanding its list of certifying authorities. It is eliminating a requirement that reading disabilities be the result of “organic dysfunction” and confirmed by a medical doctor. When the new policy takes effect, school reading specialists, among others, will be allowed to certify eligibility for people with reading disabilities.
  • NLS also will begin to implement the cross-border exchange of braille and audio books under the auspices of the Marrakesh Treaty. The treaty will help NLS expand its foreign-language offerings, particularly in Spanish but also in French, Tagalog/Filipino, Vietnamese and other languages. You can read more about NLS and the Marrakesh Treaty at
  • NLS is developing a new digital talking-book machine (DTBM) that would meet patron demand and serve as a bridge between the current DTBM—introduced in 2008—and a next-generation device. The new DTBM would play talking-book cartridges like the current model, but it could also download books from BARD. Meanwhile, NLS is considering options for a next-generation device—perhaps a voice-controlled, locked-down smartphone—and exploring ways to make BARD available on smart speakers.
  • Several hundred patrons in Iowa, Utah, Kentucky, Maryland and New Jersey are now trying out one model of a refreshable braille display, or eReader, commissioned by NLS. Pilot testing of a second eReader model will begin around the first of the year. 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.
  • BARD is moving from Library of Congress servers to cloud servers around the first of the year. This will give it the capacity to handle growing demand and provide faster download speeds. Meanwhile, the BARD Mobile apps for iOS and Android devices will be getting an improved search feature and expanded subscription options for book series. And soon patrons will be able to download eBraille books on the Android app, as they already can do on the iOS app.
  • NLS is researching ways to provide data connectivity to patrons who live in areas where there is no broadband service, so they can download books from BARD.
  • NLS is taking steps to diversify its pool of narrators to represent a wider group of voices. NLS’s in-house studio and its outside contract studios will tap into this pool for both new recordings and re-recordings of older titles.

• • •

Screenshots of three people
(Top to bottom) Dr. Carla Hayden, Kevin Treese and Jane Glasby

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden joined the conference by prerecorded video to honor this year’s Network Library of the Year winners: the Oklahoma Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, represented by Director Kevin Treese, and the Talking Books and Braille Center of the San Francisco Public Library, represented by Director Jane Glasby.

“A library is at its best when it can focus on the needs of its users and patrons, and serve its community by overcoming the barriers that prevent access,” Hayden said.

“These libraries take this commitment to heart every day, assuring that individuals in their communities have access to materials they need in order to foster lifelong learning and a joy of reading. And, certainly, in no previous year has this job required more tenacity and creativity.”

The two libraries will be feted in person at a luncheon in the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson Building next year.

• • •

This was Karen Keninger’s last conference as director of NLS, a position she’s held since 2012. Keninger announced earlier this fall that she would retire at the end of March 2021.

“I cannot tell you how privileged I have been the past nine years to lead this vital and incredible program and all the incredible people in it,” she said. Even with all the advances of recent years, though, “there is a lot more work to do to keep up with the ever-changing needs and desires of our patrons and the ever-changing technology we live with.”

Keninger will be returning to her home state of Iowa, where she plans to do some writing and travel and has “a lot of reading to catch up on.”

We’ll have more on Keninger’s tenure at NLS and the many changes she oversaw in the January–March 2021 issue of News.

Screen shot of woman describing a PowerPoint slide
Kaitlyn Hodges of the Bayside and Special Services Library in Virginia Beach, Virginia, was part of an online panel discussion on the ways libraries like hers have responded to the pandemic, such as promoting BARD as an alternative to receiving braille and audio books by mail.

NLS anniversary concert will feature acclaimed jazz pianist

Stellar jazz pianist Matthew Whitaker will perform a virtual concert on March 3 to kick off a year-long commemoration of NLS’s 90th anniversary. Whitaker, who has been blind since birth, is an NLS patron who has used the Music Section’s accessible scores and reading materials on his rise to fame.

WhWhitaker in sungkasses poses at pianoitaker began playing music at age three when his grandfather bought him a small Yamaha keyboard. At age nine, he began teaching himself to play the Hammond organ and became so proficient that the company endorsed him three years later. He was the youngest artist ever endorsed by Hammond at age 12, and then the youngest endorsed by Yamaha at age 15.

Whitaker’s original compositions have garnered him accolades across the jazz world, including ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards for 2019 and 2020.

In a report on the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes, neuroscientists discussed how Whitaker’s brain is stimulated by music—so much so that his visual cortex lights up when he plays. More on that study can be seen at External.

Like previous NLS concerts that featured José André in 2019 and Justin Kauflin in 2014, this event showcases the NLS Music Section’s work in providing patrons with direct access to the largest collection of braille, audio and large print music materials in the world. Whitaker’s performance, however, will be broadcast online and preceded by a live-streamed interview conducted by NLS Director Karen Keninger.

The concert will begin celebrations of the services provided by NLS since 1931, which will include monthly highlights of the program throughout the year.

For more information about the concert, follow NLS on Facebook, check out the NLS Music Notes blog at or visit the Library of Congress Events page at

—Gabrielle Barnes

NLS’s path-setting braille music proofreader retires

By Claire Rojstaczer

Gil Busch has always been a lover of music.

“I learned to play piano by ear in second grade at the Pittsburgh School for the Blind,” he recalls, “and then in third grade, they taught us braille music.”

It’s a skill that served him well for eleven years with the NLS Music Section before his retirement this October.

Man playing electric piano
Gilbert Busch plays piano at the 2012 NLS Library of the Year Awards luncheon.

From an early age he was passionate about classical music, particularly Beethoven, Chopin and Mahler. “One of my school teachers kept pushing me toward jazz to make me more marketable. The thought was I could play in a restaurant or bar as background music. But I just wasn’t interested in that.”

Instead, he developed a talent for the organ. His first experience on a full pipe organ was in college, and from then on, he was hooked. He worked weekends as a church organist for many years, and even today he sometimes plays at the Bush Hill Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

His primary job before coming to NLS, however, was as a proofreader at the National Braille Press. “We didn’t have a dedicated braille music transcriber, so sometimes I did that, too,” he recalls, but music material rarely passed his desk. “I was thinking to myself, ‘I would love to work for the Library of Congress,’ and then three different friends let me know that a music proofreader job was available there.”

He received his official NLS job offer on January 24, his birthday. A few months later, he and his wife Lisa, a fellow musician and Pittsburgh School for the Blind alumna, moved to Washington, D.C., eventually making a more permanent home just across the Potomac River in Alexandria.

Working at NLS gave Busch many opportunities to delve into his favorites. “Just recently, I proofread Beethoven’s famous Piano Sonata No. 23, the Appassionata, and I’m very glad I got to work on that before I left,” he says. The job also let him develop a deep appreciation for the breadth of the NLS Music collection—the largest of its kind in the world. “We have a lot of manuals that explain braille music, and I don’t think most people know we have them—they just struggle along. I wish more people took advantage of them.”

Busch’s careful review has been essential to the success of the ongoing NLS braille music digitization project as well as to the quality of new acquisitions. “Every single new braille transcription went through his hands, be it an organ composition, a braille score transcription of Hamilton or a method book for learning percussion,” says Juliette Appold, Music Section head. “He ensured the quality of our digital braille music file collection.”

Busch and his wife plan to resettle in Pittsburgh, closer to family and friends. “I have dreams where I’m back at work,” he admits. “I’m still finding out what I’m going to do with myself, but I hope it will involve music in some way.”

The NLS Music Section distributes materials for playing and learning about music directly to NLS patrons. Its collection consists of braille and large-print music scores as well as audio materials on instruction and music appreciation. For more information, visit, email [email protected] or call 800-424-8567 ext. 2.

NLS News

Woman poses in roomCongratulation to NLS’s consumer relations specialist, Judy Dixon, on being elected president of the International Council on English Braille during its General Assembly in October.

Dixon has been a member of the World Braille Council since 2009 and chaired the Braille Authority of North America from 2007 to 2012. This coming June, she will mark 40 years with NLS.

The ICEB works to coordinate and improve standards for braille usage for all English-speaking users of braille. Its members come from Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States.

• • •
NLS network libraries in Pennsylvania and Maryland changed their names this fall.

The Free Library of Philadelphia’s Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped are now LAMP: Library of Accessible Media for Pennsylvanians. In addition to the name change, state residents with print disabilities will access the libraries’ services through a new centralized, accessible website at that will go live this winter.

The rebrand has been in development for the past two years. “The goal is to make services for Pennsylvania’s growing print-disabled population more discoverable, accessible and inclusive,” said Mark Lee, director of LAMP in Pittsburgh. “LAMP removes disability from our name and focuses on the service.”

When Congress passed the Pratt-Smoot Act in 1931 and allocated funding to the Library of Congress to purchase books for the blind, the Free Library of Philadelphia and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh were two of the original 19 national locations chosen to distribute books.

And in October, the Maryland State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped became the Maryland State Library for the Blind and Print Disabled. Legislation authorizing the name change was passed in the spring 2020 session of the Maryland General Assembly.
• • •
Libraries throughout the NLS network have made extraordinary efforts to continue providing service at a time when patrons need it most. Those efforts are not going unnoticed.

Mark Landry, circulation clerk at the Montana Talking Book Library, received a 2020 Governor’s Award for his work in keeping the library open during the pandemic. The commendation reads, in part: “When state offices were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Martin Landry volunteered to stay in the office to ensure the Talking Book Library program continued … He established new workflows, created a system to ensure safety, and maintained the prompt and ongoing circulation of materials.”

Meanwhile, the Community Foundation of the Central Blue Ridge gave a Facebook shout-out to the Staunton, Virginia, Talking Book Center.

“From April to July, in the early days of the pandemic, [library supervisor] Ilia Desjardins was working by herself to serve its 300 patrons, mailing out nearly 5,000 books while also providing information about local services such as Meals on Wheels and contact information for medical centers,” the foundation’s Facebook post said in part. “Ilia made it a point to continually check in with her patrons … [W]e thank you from the bottom of our hearts!”