Braille Monitor                         October 2020

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Using Knowledge to Inform, Inspire, and Engage: Perspectives on Equal Access from the Largest Library in the World

by Carla Hayden

From the Editor: Carla Hayden is the Librarian of Congress, and one of the programs she oversees is the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled which is headed by Karen Kininger. Here are the remarks President Riccobono made in introducing her:

I'm really jazzed about this next presentation. Our presenter is another first for us at this convention. She was sworn in as the fourteenth Librarian of Congress on September 14, 2016. She is the first woman and the first African-American to lead this national library. NFB provided a letter of support to the United States Congress when she was in the confirmation process. We knew her because, prior to this post, she served since 1993 as the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library right here in Baltimore, Maryland, where she still lives. I do believe this is the first time we've had the Librarian of Congress, and she was definitely worth waiting for. We talk about the library every year and are really pleased that she's taken the time to be with us personally. In many places she goes she says her goal is to make being a librarian cool, and I think she's definitely achieving that. I've had the opportunity to meet with her a number of times, and I have to say our nation is blessed to have her overseeing not only the library for the blind but also all of the other tremendous and inspirational artifacts of the Library of Congress. Here is Carla Hayden:

CARLA HAYDEN: Thank you for that. I'm a child of two musicians. I'm a librarian because I have no talent. Thank you for that! It's because I'm not able to be there in person that I'm grateful the power of technology allows me to be with you. It's my privilege to spend some time with you from Baltimore. I also want to acknowledge the recent passing of another Baltimorean and member of the Federation, Mr. Charles Cook, who was so instrumental in designing technological solutions. We are thinking of his family during this time.

It's also an honor to speak with you from the perspective of the Library of Congress now because it gives me an opportunity to share with you the hard work of librarians and the devotion of many people across this country, providing access so that "all may read," the motto of the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. That name was changed recently.

You may know that the division was officially established by an act of Congress in 1931. However, the Library's access and commitment to providing materials to support adults and children who are blind became a significant part of the library's mission when it moved into its first home, the magnificent Thomas Jefferson building, designed to resemble an Italian palace, to signify that in this country, we build palaces to knowledge and wisdom, and not to wealth.

It was mentioned that I am the fourteenth Librarian of Congress, and one of my predecessors in 1897 opened a special reading room with mahogany tables and the finest furnishings where books with raised print were available and readings were held. One of the first public programs featured the renowned poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, who was at the time a Library of Congress staff member, and he read from his works.

Over the years material was acquired by gift and purchase. It was really supplemented in 1913 when Congress passed a law that said that one copy of every raised type book produced in the United States be deposited at the Library of Congress. Then…and you'll appreciate this: After years of urging, in 1931 the Pratt-Smoot Act was passed by Congress and approved by the president to appropriate annual funds for a national free library program. This allowed the Library of Congress to not only distribute reading materials but to produce them for regional libraries for circulation free of charge.

In 1952, a year I know well, the service was expanded to children and teens; in 1962 to include music materials; and in 1966 to include free service to individuals with other disabilities. Beginning with nineteen libraries, the network has expanded to fifty-five regional libraries, twenty-six subregional libraries, and sixteen advisory and outreach centers in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, and Guam. However, this network of libraries, from my perspective at the Library of Congress, really shows me that this network of libraries is providing one of the bedrock services to equal access of materials that inform, inspire, and engage.

Frederick Douglass once said, "Once you learn to read, you'll be forever free." And in Alberto Manguel's History of Reading, he said, "As dictators, slave owners, and other illicit holders of power have always known, an illiterate crowd is the easiest to rule. If you cannot prevent people from learning to read and being able to read, the next best recourse is to limit its scope.” Libraries were established to support literacy and to be a key to opportunity. The library world in general has had a commitment to ensuring equal access for all. That access means everyone should have the opportunity to be empowered by libraries. They are the places that hold the materials to inspire and cultivate the possibilities of humans.

There is a book that, as a librarian, I have been referring to a lot in the last couple years. It's Eric Klinenberg's Palaces for the People.   He said in a recent article "To restore civil society, start with the library.” He is echoing what libraries and library patrons have been saying for years: that libraries are equalizers and are absolutely universal.

I've been able to see this commitment to equal access to materials from the beginning of my library career in an urban public library system, the Chicago Public Library, that administered an NLS regional library. Years later I was able to see firsthand what the network at NLS at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore that was physically and programmatically connected to the Maryland NLS could do for blind patrons. I even got a chance to conduct story times.
Libraries have always evolved to adapt to the needs of communities. The Library of Congress' partnerships and networks help ensure that those opportunities are accessible to everyone. In 2013 the Library of Congress announced the availability of the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD), which allows patrons to download Braille and talking books to their mobile devices without cost and in 2016 to provide refreshable Braille devices. Equal access from this standpoint means continuing to enhance and upgrade that system as the world continues on a digital path, and that path has been most strikingly emphasized in recent months. Equal access means making sure that the NLS provides everyone the opportunity to get accurate, objective information for all of their needs. Equal access means that the NLS and the network provide materials in Braille for children that allows a young person to be inspired by the biographies of people like Rosa Parks. Equal access means being engaged by a concert by a young jazz pianist, José Andrés, who is also blind and is now performing online after being live streamed.

A recent op-ed piece published by Forbes magazine this past summer had an interesting headline: “Amazon Should Replace Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money.” Now as you might imagine, this piece was greeted by outrage, not only by librarians but by library users from every sector worldwide. In fact the uproar was so loud, Forbes deleted and took down the article. And I might add, rightfully so.

As the Librarian of Congress, I've been part of the amazing and brilliant work of libraries across the world. Whether it's at a sprawling urban library system or small rural library, all join together in the recognition of the critical need for access to services and technologies by all people. Libraries have learned to adapt to the changing needs of diverse communities, and they're continuing to try to harness the power of technology to provide materials in all formats to inform, inspire, and engage.

The Library of Congress recently launched a new strategic plan to be even more user-centered. Part of this plan is a digital strategy that will harness technology to bridge not only geographical divides but every divide that prevents us from expanding our reach and enhancing our services. This means we will continue to throw open what's been called the Library of Congress' treasure chest, the world's largest library. It will allow us to connect with all users and cultivate an innovation culture. It's starting now. For instance, NLS has launched a blog, Music Notes, that highlights lesser known materials and activities and people in the music department. Some of the items featured in the blogs have been profiles on Braille transcribers and their work, free Braille giveaways, as well as interviews with patrons and narrators on social media.

As I close, I just want to assure you that the Library of Congress will continue to join libraries nationwide to provide equal access and to be more aggressive in our outreach to work with libraries and communities across the nation. Whether it's working with local librarians to working with teachers and librarians in schools, we want to share the resources of the largest library in the world. One of the primary reasons for instituting a national program like NLS was to decrease the difficulty and the high cost for individual libraries to acquire materials in special formats. We will continue to offer books and other materials in as many ways as possible, free to all regardless of age, economic circumstances, or, increasingly, technological expertise. That is what equal access to inform, inspire, and engage means from the perspective of the Library of Congress, and it is an honor for me to be a librarian at this time.

I really want to thank you for including the Library of Congress and with me the library community in your conference. You should know that we're your partners, marching together in equal access. Thank you for including me.

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