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Program Gives the Blind Access to Reading

National Library Service Expands, Transforms Over 80-Year History

By Erin Mershon

When Thomas Galante was 8 years old, he had to rely on his parents to get books from the local library and read them to him. “I always thought, wouldn’t it be great to have my own books to read?” he said.

But Galante is blind. Then he discovered the Library of Congress’ National Library Service, a program that delivers free reading material, such as audio and Braille books, to patrons nationwide who are blind or have some other physical disability.

Over the next 50 years, Galante, vice president for human resources for the Bank of New York Mellon, devoured countless books.

“When I first started using the program, the recordings were done on records and the machines ran on vacuum tubes,” Galante said. “They were heavy wooden things. Then they moved to cassettes, and what a boon that was.”

The NLS program celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. More than 320,000 books and 70 current magazines are available, and 113 regional libraries participate in the program, interacting with patrons and facilitating the mailings. 

“It’s to ensure those people have access to reading in the same way that any American citizen would have access to reading,” said Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for library services at the Library of Congress. “What they do is fabulous.”

Throughout its history, the program has undergone countless technological changes, rotating through various types of records before switching to cassette tapes in 1969. Just this year it began offering digital services to its patrons.

When it was established in 1931, however, the program only provided Braille material to patrons. In 1933, the first talking book — Woodrow Wilson’s biography of George Washington — was recorded for the program. The first order also included the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Washington’s Farewell Address, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and several titles by William Shakespeare. Those first titles were recorded onto 12-inch, 33-1/3 rpm records. A book of just 60,000 words required at least eight discs.

The program was expanded in 1952 to include offerings for children and again in 1966 to include items for individuals with other physical impairments preventing regular reading. Now, more than 823,000 patrons use the service. Last year, the average audio book reader downloaded or borrowed 40 recorded books and magazines a year. Braille readers averaged 22 books and magazines that year.

For the most part, the audio books resemble the ones sold in bookstores for parents facing long road trips or professionals with lengthy commutes. Professional actors record the talking books and the same best-sellers are available through the program. The biggest difference is the player that the NLS ships along with the books — it has larger, easy-to-use buttons and Braille to help those unfamiliar with such devices. Unlike other audio book producers, the NLS is also largely exempt from copyright law in its productions.

The conversion to digital media has taken several years, since only about 2,500 titles can be converted each year. All new titles are digitized, and most of the collection has now been converted, but cassettes are still available by request.

Although it has just completed the switch, the NLS is already anticipating the next technological shift. It recently began offering patrons the ability to download talking books directly from the NLS website.

“All the baby boomers are now turning 65, and they’re more accustomed to having iPods and MP3 players,” Marcum said. “They may want more content they can control themselves, even when they’re having visual problems.”

Galante, who uses the new digital service, appreciates the ability to download books immediately. “It’s just like if you had a Kindle or wanted a book from Amazon,” he said. “You can get it within a couple of minutes.”

Talking books have also helped Galante grow closer to his friends and family. He remembers listening to a recording of “The Godfather” in college, alone in his dorm room. Before long, the recording’s talented actors and exciting plot had drawn in 10 of his friends, who all sat down to finish the book together. “Everyone was so interested in it,” he said. “Just listening to it gave people such a different perspective.”

Later in his life, the program also allowed Galante to read children’s books with his two young children, who are now in high school and college. “They really enjoyed sitting with me, reading books together,” he said.
“It was neat to be able to do that with your kids.”

Last year, talking books also helped bring Galante closer to his ailing father, a veteran of World War II who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Galante checked out WWII books to read with his father, who then opened up to his son about his war experiences.

“It was stuff I had never known before,” he said. “The technology is interesting, sure. But the really interesting thing from my perspective is how the program itself has allowed me to establish and build on my relationships with people.”

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