Library of Congress Service Launches App to Bring Materials to Blind Readers

Posted September 24, 2013 at 1:29pm

Karen Keninger remembers fondly the carefully wrapped packages of braille books delivered to the doorstep of her childhood home in Vinton, Iowa, from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

“It was like Christmas,” recalls Keninger, who was diagnosed with an eye disease at 16 months old. By the age of 7, her vision had deteriorated to the point where she lost the ability to read large-print books. “I would get excited every time the mail came because I loved reading,” she said.

Keninger now serves as director of the NLS, using her perspective as a patron of the Library of Congress service to improve the program’s mission to deliver reading materials to more than 500,000 citizens with low vision, blindness or a physical disability that makes reading regular print difficult. Her March 2012 appointment by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington marked the first time a visually impaired person took the helm of the program, which was established by Congress in 1931.

Under her leadership, the NLS is rolling out a new app through the iTunes App Store that gives patrons nearly instantaneous access to more than 50,000 books, magazines and musical scores in audio and braille formats. The Braille and Audio Reading Download app — BARD for short — offers children’s books, teen fiction, mystery and romance novels, in addition to classic literature and works of nonfiction.

Gone are the days of waiting patiently by the mailbox. “Now they can use a mainstream device — iPhone, iPad or iPod — to download the book they want today and have it ready within five minutes,” Keninger told CQ Roll Call. Since the app became available on Sept. 20, more than 3,000 eligible users have downloaded it.

“It’s a library in your pocket,” Keninger said.

The app also helps the NLS tighten its belt at a time when the legislative branch is operating under increased budget strains. Producing a download costs much less than converting reading material to an audio cartridge or a hard-copy braille book, then mailing out copies to the regional library to be delivered to patrons.

“We don’t have to make a physical copy of the book, so that’s less expensive,” Keninger said. “Network libraries don’t have to handle it and neither does the post office.”

She also predicts that larger cost savings might be possible down the road, as more people adapt to the technology and use their own equipment to access NLS materials.

“We have traditionally provided a talking book machine to each of our patrons that costs about $160,” Keninger said. “For each time someone says, ‘I don’t need one of those talking book machines because I would now prefer to use my iPhone,’ NLS isn’t providing the machine and network libraries aren’t providing support services for the machine.”

Keninger says changes in technology have made a wealth of new reading options available to visually impaired people over the years. She benefits from many on a daily basis, using her digital talking machine and her iPhone to download NLS content, and reading braille books and magazines she receives in the mail. One of her most recent downloads was a work of teen fiction.

“My grandson was here for the [National] Book Festival,” Keninger said. “He was able to meet his favorite author, and I thought I should download one of his books and read that.”

Her work computer is equipped with a screen reader to interpret what appears on the monitor, as well as a braille display. Additionally, she keeps an old-fashioned braille writer on her desk and an electronic refreshable braille display. She would love to be able to give NLS patrons more access to braille literacy tools, but the displays are too expensive for the budget.

“There are so many opportunities right now with the changes in technology,” Keninger said of her 18 months directing the NLS. “There are so many things that I want to do, and the biggest challenge is choosing the ones that we can afford to do and getting the most for the money.”

Keninger, who learned to read at the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School, a specialized K-12 school for legally blind students, wants to expand braille literacy. Adding refreshable, digital braille readers to the NLS offering has become one of her next goals.

“I am hopeful that in time, NLS will be able to provide those because braille is the literacy medium for people who are blind or visually impaired,” she said. “Audio is great, but its not a substitute for reading.”