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Library for Blind Keeps Growing

Library of Congress Program Hopes to Go Entirely Digital by 2008

In 1931, Rep. Ruth Sears Baker Pratt (R-N.Y.) and Sen. Reed Smoot (R-Utah) sponsored legislation mandating the Library of Congress to sponsor a program that would give those without sight the chance to enjoy the finest works of literature.

Now, 73 years after the Pratt-Smoot Act created the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, almost 23 million copies of 400,000 books and magazines have been put into audio or Braille formats, and the program is still looking to add to the collection.

“Any book that you are aware of, we have done or are doing,” said Kurt Cylke, who has been with the program for 33 years.

Each week throughout the year the program’s collection and development committee, which is made up of librarians, comes up with 50 book titles it recommends to be converted into audio format.

“Basically we have a committee chair do the selection from books recommended in Library Journal, BookLine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and for children’s books we use Hornbook and School Library Journal,” said Gloria Zittrauer, who works on the selection committee.

“We usually do the bestsellers. If it’s been on [a bestseller list] for at least four weeks, then it will probably make our list.”

Zittrauer adds that a book must also have at least two favorable reviews for the committee to consider using it.

Zittrauer said the turnaround time from the recommendation by the committee to the audio book landing on the library shelves or in the mailbox of a book lover with a handicap is usually six to nine months.

“That’s because we have very strict recording standards. If the first read isn’t up to our standards, we will go back and do it again,” Zittrauer said.

Currently, the Washington branch of the program on Taylor Street Northwest has hired readers at $12.50 an hour to read books they plan to add to the already voluminous collection of taped tomes. The taped books will then be shipped to library branches in every state but Wyoming, which due to its small population has its branch office in Utah.

For this year Congress has provided $50 million in funds for the program, 85 percent of which Cylke said goes directly into services for subscribers to the program.

“It’s very efficient,” Cylke said.

Cylke says the majority of the work gets contracted out to the American Foundation for the Blind in New York and Denver, as well as the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Ky.

Still the program likes to record about 100 titles and 1,000 copies in its D.C. headquarters to keep up with the new technologies involved in the recording process.

“All the books we are producing now have a digital master. The standard is there,” said Cylke, who adds that the goal is to make the entire recording process digital by 2008.

“The impact for the blind user is that they will be able to access the recorded book easier by simply going directly to the chapter, page or word they want,” Cylke said.

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