Jason Broughton has a mission at the Library of Congress: ‘Expand and be inclusive’

He’s the new director of the 90-year-old National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled

Jason Broughton, director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, in front of the Library of Congress in Washington in October. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Jason Broughton, director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, in front of the Library of Congress in Washington in October. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 18, 2021 at 6:15am

It took Jason Broughton more than a dozen years to find his calling. 

The then-Florida biology teacher left his job in 2008 to return to South Carolina to care for his ailing mother. He eventually got a job as a workforce trainer for Charleston’s government, giving talks across the city.

Sometimes he would present at the library managed by Cynthia Hurd, a respected longtime resident. One day she pulled him aside, saying: “I’ve got to tell you something.” 

When a branch manager demands your attention, that’s not typically a good thing. “I was like, oh my goodness I must have done something wrong,” Broughton said.

But instead of a reprimand, she handed him a piece of paper.

“I found a job, and I think you’d be perfect for it,” he recalled Hurd saying, as she shared a listing for a trainer at the South Carolina State Library. In previous encounters, Hurd had told Broughton she thought he’d make a great librarian. 

“So I applied, got the job and then my trajectory began,” he said. 

Hurd never got to see Broughton rise through the field to become the state librarian of Vermont, and now the new director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, part of the Library of Congress.  

She was one of nine people murdered by a white supremacist who opened fire on a Bible study at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. Today, the library Hurd managed bears her name, and her influence has stayed with Broughton too.

“She was really wanting to make sure all persons of that community were going to have some form of connection to that library, and understand … they were wanted,” he said. 

Broughton was appointed NLS director in August. He took over from Karen Keninger, the first blind person to lead the organization, who retired this year. With the motto “That All May Read,” the service provides free braille and audio materials to blind people and others who can’t use standard print items.

A lot has changed since Congress established NLS in 1931. Broughton arrived at a pivotal time, as the service tries to appeal to younger users and eases eligibility requirements for people with reading disabilities like dyslexia, broadening its potential base. He must balance the needs of people used to checking out physical items, like cartridges for audiobook players, with those who want to download digital files.

Also on the horizon is the expiring lease on the NLS building in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, which has been a point of friction for advocates who say the service has been “relegated” away from Capitol Hill.  

“I’m in a learning mode right now,” Broughton said, explaining that he hopes to spend the first part of his tenure just understanding how the place and its more than 120 employees work.  

Broughton said that though he is not blind himself, he believes he can be an advocate and empathetic to NLS patrons’ needs.

“I can only be the outsider, but I can definitely take as much wisdom and counsel and advice from our user groups,” he said.

A new location

Broughton was born and raised in South Carolina. His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father was one of the first people of color to be a lieutenant sheriff in Berkeley County. Growing up, libraries were always part of his world.

“I love to actually read,” he said. “I never thought I would see myself be a librarian, because in elementary school I was terrified of the school librarian.”

After Broughton took that job with the South Carolina libraries, he worked his way through a master’s in library and information science. He made a stop in Savannah, Ga., libraries before heading to Vermont. 

His first day in his new Washington office was several miles away from the Capitol, in an 88,000-square-foot building on Taylor Street, where staff work, store historic collections and braille music materials, develop and test devices and record new audio books. The service also has two distribution centers, in Cincinnati and Salt Lake City.

Bringing the location closer to the Library of Congress’ iconic main campus would “highlight the nation’s commitment to equal access for all citizens,” according to the National Federation of the Blind, a nonprofit group that has called on Congress to fund the move. 

Broughton recently met with leaders of the group to hear their hopes for the future, said its executive director for advocacy and policy, John G. Paré Jr., who described the meeting as a positive one.

A site near the Capitol would be prime real estate with good access to public transportation, but Broughton does not believe the current spot is “an impediment” to NLS’ mission, saying he “would be pleased, wherever Congress would like to consider us to be, because it is their decision.” 

Both Senate and House appropriators proposed fulfilling the Library of Congress’ fiscal 2022 request to boost NLS’ budget by about $1.7 million, to $61.2 million. Finding a suitable new site is an “ongoing discussion,” said Library of Congress spokesperson María Peña.

Planning for the future

For decades, NLS patrons visited network libraries or got their reading materials delivered to their doorsteps, in the form of braille books or audio cartridges. Plenty of people still use the service that way, receiving packages marked as “free matter for the blind or handicapped,” which means the mail can travel postage-free under a law dating back to the early 20th century. 

But the service has also tried to keep up with the times, or at least stay a few steps behind. NLS now offers more than 147,000 digital items through its online portal, and counted 4.4 million downloads in the 2020 fiscal year. It launched a mobile app in 2013, designed to be off limits to the general public. (A special copyright exception allows NLS to republish many authors’ works without their permission.)

As he enters his third month on the job, Broughton plans to draw on his experience as state librarian in Vermont, where he was the first Black person to serve in the post. “We had some communities that had very poor connectivity” in the mostly rural state, he said. He recognizes that not everyone has reliable internet, while others may not welcome new technologies.  

Next up is an e-reader pilot program. So far NLS has loaned out about 4,500 devices capable of auto-refreshing braille, a number Broughton hopes will grow to over 9,000 “very, very soon,” as he told the Senate Rules and Administration Committee in October.

Paré said the e-reader deployment is “slower than we would have preferred” and hopes Broughton can speed up the process. “While hard copy braille is important in some situations, in many cases, patrons will prefer the possibility to carry hundreds of books in braille in their backpack,” Paré said. 

Broughton said he isn’t the type of boss to come in and begin changing things right away, but he plans to look for ways to expand the service’s offerings for young adults and children and to improve the sharing of materials between its nearly 100 partner libraries and outreach centers, which form a network around the country.  

And growing the collection has never been more important, Parè said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2014 that the number of blind adults could grow from 1.4 million to 2.2 million by 2032, the result of an aging population and permanent vision impairment from chronic diseases like diabetes. 

Those people will be NLS’ target audience, along with readers unable to physically hold a book and now a wider range of users with perceptual or reading disabilities, after recent tweaks to eligibility definitions. The tweaks brought NLS in line with the Marrakesh Treaty, an international agreement ratified by the United States in 2019 that aims to end a “book famine” for the print disabled. 

Broughton said the importance of the service depends on its ability to grow and change. 

It’s something that Cynthia Hurd was adept at in South Carolina, he said. She knew not only the existing library services but also looked for programming to draw in new patrons.

“To gain in certain areas is not going to be a loss in others,” Broughton said. “And so that allows us this unique opportunity to expand without — hopefully, if I do this right as a director — a loss. It will be to, wonderfully, expand and be inclusive.”