The National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS), Library of Congress, administers a free national library program that provides braille and recorded materials to people 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, in 1966 to include individuals with other physical disabilities that prevent reading regular print, and in 2016 to permit NLS to provide refreshable braille displays. The NLS program is funded annually by Congress, and books and materials are mailed as “Free Matter for the Blind or Handicapped” through a separate appropriation to the United States Postal Service. NLS service is provided directly by a network of cooperating libraries funded through a combination of state, local, and/or federal sources.
Beginning with 19 libraries in 1931, the network has expanded to 55 regional libraries, 26 subregional libraries, and 13 advisory and outreach centers serving all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and Guam.
Under a special provision of the United States 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, ebraille, and digital audio format. Reading materials are circulated through a network of libraries across the United States and its territories and to American citizens living abroad. Digital audio and ebraille materials are available through the NLS BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Download) service and the BARD Mobile app for iOS and Android devices. Libraries also circulate physical materials and free playback equipment needed to read magazines and audiobooks on digital cartridges (called talking books) through postage-free mail. In early 2019, the United States joined the Marrakesh Treaty as its 50th member, allowing NLS to assist patrons in requesting accessible materials in a wide range of languages from the other libraries around the world that are also Marrakesh Treaty members.
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, physical, perceptual, or reading disability may apply for service.
Books are selected for the NLS collection on the basis of their appeal across a wide range of interests. Approximately sixty-five percent are fiction, and thirty-five percent are nonfiction. Bestsellers, biographies, fiction, and how-to books are in great demand. The collection includes books in multiple languages other than English. Books for youth—from preschool to young adult—are provided in audio, braille, and print/braille. Patrons and librarians can search the NLS book collection and other resources from cooperating agencies via the NLS Catalog. Registered borrowers may also learn of new books added to the collection through the bimonthly publications Braille Book Review, Talking Book Topics, and International Language Quarterly.
The NLS collection contains hundreds of thousands of items, of which more than 34,000 are available in hard-copy braille.
Currently more than one hundred audio and braille magazine titles, selected for the program based on reader interest, are available through NLS by subscription. Most magazines are available on BARD. Readers may subscribe to such titles as National Geographic and Consumer Reports in audio and Cook’s Illustrated and the New York Times Large Print Weekly in braille. A variety of magazines for children are also available. Readers who subscribe on BARD will have new issues added to their wish lists shortly after the print issue is released; patrons can also subscribe to receive hardcopy braille or audio magazines on cartridge via postal-free mail. There are more than 20,000 magazine issues available on BARD.
BARD, a free online service, provides access to thousands of special-format books, magazines, and music materials in compressed digital audio and ebraille formats available only to NLS patrons. The site is password-protected. All files are downloadable as compressed audio or formatted ebraille files, which are transferable to NLS cartridges or USB drives for playing on NLS equipment or compatible commercial players. Digital audio and ebraille materials are also available through the BARD Mobile app for iOS and Android devices. A refreshable braille display with a Bluetooth connection is required to read ebraille materials. BARD Express provides NLS patrons with a simplified way to access BARD on Windows-based computers and transfer books and magazines to an NLS cartridge or USB drive.
BARD contains nearly two hundred thousand items: well more than one hundred thousand books in audio, nearly twenty thousand books in ebraille, and nearly ten thousand music collection items are available.
Patrons may request NLS equipment on long-term loan for reading their library materials. Both equipment (“talking-book players”) and materials are sent via USPS mail and are free of charge. The players are available in two models (standard and advanced), 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 players, such as lightweight headphones, adapters for USB flash drives, and a breath switch, may be requested by patrons. Readers with significant hearing loss may request a high-volume player and headphones. Visit our equipment page to learn more.
Individuals who are interested in materials for playing or learning about music may receive them directly from the NLS Music Section in Washington, DC. The collection consists of braille and large-print music scores and instructional materials. 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. Audio and braille music materials are also available through BARD. The Music Section may be reached at [email protected] or 800-424-8567 ext. 2, and more information can be found on the NLS Music Notes blog.
The NLS music collection (braille, audio, large print) is the largest of its kind in the world, with approximately 25,000 titles.
NLS and its cooperating libraries respond to questions about various subjects relevant to people who are blind or have a physical disability. This free service is available to individuals, organizations, and libraries. For a list of what is available or to ask a question, visit Ask an NLS Librarian, call 800-424-8567, or email [email protected].
NLS has partnered with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) in support of BEP’s US Currency Reader Program, which provides currency readers, free of charge, to individuals who are blind or visually impaired. The program is part of the government’s Meaningful Access Initiative to assist individuals who experience difficulties identifying US currency. The currency reader, called the iBill Talking Banknote Identifier, is a compact device that announces a note’s value by voice, a pattern of tones, or a pattern of vibrations. Users insert a bill into the device and press a button to have the denomination identified. Visit Currency Reader to download an application for the currency reader.
Interested in volunteering? Volunteers contribute important services to the NLS program in the areas of braille transcription and proofreading, talking-book production, library service, and machine repair. NLS sponsors free correspondence courses leading to certification in braille transcribing (literary, music, and mathematics) and braille proofreading. National volunteer groups also assist network libraries in repairing playback equipment. Local recording groups may request training in talking-book production. Ready to reach out to your local network library? Network libraries engage volunteers in a variety of service maintenance projects.
Find Out More . . .
If you or someone you know is interested in receiving more information about the braille and talking book program, call 888-NLS-READ (888-657-7323) toll-free and follow the prompts to be connected to the braille and talking book library in your state. Or go to Information Request, complete and submit the form, and someone from your local talking-book library will contact you. To find the nearest library serving people who are blind, visually impaired, or have a disability, visit Find Your Library.