Future Reflections          Fall 2007

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Accessible Reading Materials for Youth: The Evolution of the
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped Children’s Collection

by Jane Caulton, Head, Publications and Media Section, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Washington, D.C.; Linda Redmond, Head, Reference Section, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Washington, D.C.; Patricia Steelman, Senior Selection Librarian, Collection Development Section, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Washington, D.C.; and Deborah Toomey, Network Consultant, Network Services Section, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Washington, D.C.


The 1989 “Year of the Young Reader”celebration was a pivotal event in the evolution of Braille literacy and the development of NLS services to youth. Editor’s Note: Some months ago I called NLS staff member and expert in children’s literature, Patricia Steelman, with a question about the new NLS Web site, Kids Zone. Soon we were reminiscing about the development of NLS services to youth, and sharing our personal memories of people and pivotal events in that history. I vividly remember the Year of the Child celebration that NLS sponsored at their headquarters in Washington, D.C., in January 1989. I helped recruit children and their parents from within the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children to attend the event and was there--taking pictures--with my own ten-year-old son, Chaz. I was inspired by the memories and so curious about the details that I didn’t know, that soon I was going through channels to request an article about the history of NLS services to children and youth. Here it is and, as you can see, we have many people to thank for putting it together. I hope you find it as informative and fascinating as do I:

Rocco Fiorentino, an eleven-year-old boy who lives in New Jersey, loves reading so much that he has become a spokesperson for young blind readers in his state. Four years ago his passion carried him before the state legislature, where he discussed his love of recorded and Braille books, effectively curtailing a planned budget cut for his regional library.

Rocco is one of 21,985 children across the country and in U.S. territories abroad who benefit from the free reading program provided by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress (LC). The special-format children’s collection has grown to 21,280 titles, including 8,265 Braille, 11,695 recorded, and 1,320 print/Braille. It includes children’s classics by such writers as Louisa May Alcott, Eloise Greenfield, Ezra Jack Keats, C.S. Lewis, A.A. Milne, Arthur Ransome, Dr. Seuss, Mark Twain, and E.B. White. Popular book series such as Swallows and Amazons, Alex Rider Adventures, the Chronicles of Narnia, Dear America, Harry Potter, the Magic Tree House, and Redwall Abbey can be culled from the catalog. Books that have won such awards as the Newbery Medal, the Coretta Scott King Award, the John Steptoe Award for New Talent, the Schneider Family Book Award, and the Sibert Medal are also available. NLS also offers eight children’s magazines, four in Braille, and four on cassette.

Books are selected according to the NLS Collection Building Policy, which was developed to ensure that blind and handicapped readers have access to the “same types of books and information available to the general public through public libraries.” Works added to the collection must be readily available in print and widely reviewed; those of “long-standing value” are given priority. The books are recreational in nature, whether fiction or nonfiction. The NLS catalog also includes books produced by network libraries according to regional interest or importance.

Establishment and development of the children’s reading program
The NLS children’s collection has been shaped by a number of policies, influences, and experts over the years. The Library of Congress was authorized to provide reading materials to blind children on July 3, 1952, when House Resolution 7231 became Public Law (P.L.) 446. The law amended An Act to Provide Books for the Blind Adult, which was passed in 1931 and established the free library service for blind persons, by removing the word adult. This deletion allowed the Library of Congress to use a portion of its annual appropriation to provide Braille and recorded books for juvenile reading materials. It also encouraged the network of libraries serving blind and physically handicapped readers, established at the program’s inception, to reach out to youth.

The Division for the Blind, as the program was then called, purchased thirty-five children’s talking-book titles from the American Printing House for the Blind catalog when funding became available later that year. These books, which formed the nucleus of the children’s collection, included the popular titles The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, George Washington’s World, Little Men, Little Women, and The Yearling. Simultaneously, machine-lending agencies, which distributed talking-book machines, were advised to issue machines to youth (including those who lived in institutions), but to ensure that adult guardians were responsible for the equipment.

With the passage of P.L. 446, the division faced three challenges regarding service to children. First it had to determine what ages would best be served by the program. Proponents of Braille literacy argued that talking books might impede the desire of preschoolers to learn Braille. In addition, some worried that time spent reading books would curtail playtime and thus stifle social development. The division, therefore, adopted a policy prohibiting the issuance of talking books to children younger than age five. Next, the division decided to avoid duplicating the efforts of the American Printing House for the Blind, which provided school textbook material, by offering only recreational reading materials for school-aged children. The final challenge was to identify the method of selecting appropriate books for the new patrons. It was decided that a specialist in juvenile literature should be sought and that a policy be established to guide the selection of materials and identify the categories of youth to serve.

The American Library Association (ALA) Division of Libraries for Children and Young People (DLCYP) helped the LC Division for the Blind establish an advisory committee. The original committee included children’s coordinators at the Seattle, Brooklyn, Concord, and New York public libraries, and a representative from the Minnesota Braille and Sight Saving School. Two members of the Booklist editorial staff--the assistant-in-charge of children’s books and the assistant-in-charge of young people’s books--also served on the first committee. The charge to the committee was to provide guidance on the selection of books suitable for children ages five through thirteen.

Eventually the geographical dispersion of the various representatives proved too much of a challenge, leading to the reorganization of the committee in 1958. The new committee appointed by the Library included children’s services coordinators from the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library, the Enoch Pratt Free Library (Maryland), the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the New York Public Library--all from the East Coast--and the Library of Congress children’s literature consultant. Called the Advisory Committee on Selection of Children’s Books for the Blind, the group met for the first time September 24-25 at the Division for the Blind in Washington, D.C. The meeting allowed the committee, which had previously communicated mostly by mail, to become acquainted with the Library’s catalog of children’s books and to discuss the division’s goal of establishing a basic collection of one thousand books, including the titles already available. In two working sessions, the committee decided the frequency and form of the lists of titles to be recommended, age groups to consider in selection, and subject areas to be augmented. The group also decided to meet annually in the spring and fall and to rotate the meeting place among the members.

The committee evolved with the passage of time, as did the division. In 1962 Congress passed legislation to provide special-format music materials, and in 1966, P.L. 89-522 extended the service to people whose handicaps prevented them from using standard print and increased the number of regional libraries that could participate in the network. The division was renamed the Division for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (DBPH). Sixteen years later, when the Library of Congress was reorganized, DBPH became the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, as it is known today.

In 1981, to help network librarians understand the role of the children’s advisory group--renamed the Children’s Book Selection Committee--NLS published guidelines in the Network Library Manual. The manual noted that the body provided “guidance on policy and procedures affecting collection-building activities” and assisted “with special projects as needs arise.” The five librarians that made up the committee were to be recommended by NLS and invited by the Librarian of Congress to serve two-year terms, which could be extended for an additional two years. NLS was to select nominees on the “basis of their professional experience as children’s librarians, knowledge of juvenile literature and collection-building activities, and awareness of the informational and recreational reading needs of blind and physically handicapped children.”

During the 1980s, the group continued to convene twice a year, in two-day meetings with the NLS children’s specialist in collection building. One meeting was held in Washington, D.C., and the other was hosted by a committee member on a rotating basis. The committee identified, read, discussed, and--by consensus--recommended retrospective and current children’s titles for inclusion in the collection. Members included representatives from the network of cooperating libraries, as well as nationally recognized leaders in children’s librarianship.

By 1988, the selection of children’s books had become a more viable, integrated part of NLS collection building and the program had benefited from the participation of experienced children’s librarians. The children’s committee, therefore, was dissolved and its responsibilities merged with those of the Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Collection Building Activities. The Collection Development Advisory Group, as it is known today, now includes a children’s librarian and a young adult librarian, meets annually, and makes recommendations for all aspects of the NLS collection, including materials for children and young adults.

Building the collection
Throughout the program’s history, NLS’s policy has been to ensure accessibility to popular reading materials for all its patrons. The program is also committed to publishing the full content of each book in Braille or recorded format. It also ensures that readers may enjoy reading through the lens of their own imaginations. Audiobooks, therefore, do not include music and dramatizations. And when considering books for the Braille collections, NLS is careful to select books with graphics that lend themselves to tactile re-creation or that can be removed without severely impacting the quality of the reading. Picture books, a preschool favorite, pose a major hurdle.

While pictures are an important feature of many children’s books, only stories that can be conveyed without pictures will succeed in Braille or audio format. Selections for the collection include a wide range of stories, songs and rhymes, alphabet and counting, and simple nonfiction books. Many have been produced in the print/Braille format--printed text and pictures accompanied by Brailled text on each page--particularly winners of the Caldecott award, which is presented to illustrated books. Using this format, blind patrons can share the reading experience with their sighted family or friends. The NLS print/Braille collection includes more than thirteen hundred titles. In addition, several network libraries independently produce print/Braille books for their collections.

School-age youth require a larger and more diverse collection of books to fit their wide range of interests and abilities. Converting the print books into recorded and Braille editions is a costly, complex process. Popular works like H.A. Rey’s Curious George, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone must be produced in the formats for which they are best suited. In recording the books, the narrators must be careful to use the right tone to convey the story without becoming excessively dramatic. Braille versions of such books may require removing graphics that cannot be rendered in a tactile format, and must usually be produced in multiple volumes that often require shipping in several containers.

Once selected for the NLS children’s collection, books begin the process of transformation to special-format materials. The Production Control Section assigns books to professional recording studios or Braille presses for production. Sample copies--Braille and recorded--are returned to NLS for quality assurance testing. Braille and audio specialists examine the special-format copies for accuracy, clarity, and completeness of the special format products before they are duplicated for distribution to cooperating libraries, which in turn circulate them to patrons.

Children’s magazines are also available through the program. Jack and Jill was the first magazine to be offered in Braille. American Girl, Boys’ Life, and National Geographic Kids followed in 1963, and in 1964 Jack and Jill became the first recorded magazine offered to young patrons. Youth currently served by the program may subscribe to the Braille versions of Boys’ Life, Muse, Spider: The Magazine for Children, and Stone Soup. They may also request cassette versions of Cricket: The Magazine for Children, National Geographic Kids, Spider: The Magazine for Children, and Sports Illustrated for Kids.

Presently NLS offers all eligible readers recorded books and magazines available on cassettes that play at 15/16 inches per second. As the program prepares to transition to a digital system in 2008, selections for the program are recorded in a digital format. Audiobooks and eventually magazines and music materials will be issued on solid-state cartridges that will play on a digital talking-book player. These audio materials will soon be downloadable from the Internet.

Since 1999, patrons--young and old--have been downloading Braille books, magazines, and music scores from the Web-Braille site on the Internet. They read the materials online or by using Braille output devices.

Delivering free library service to children
Patrons receive their books from local libraries that work collaboratively with NLS to serve blind and physically handicapped people. Frequently referred to as the network of cooperating libraries, these agencies are supported by state, local, or private organizations. They share a cooperative, informal relationship with NLS and are guided by the standards and guidelines developed by NLS in concert with the American Library Association. The latest edition, Revised Standards and Guidelines of Service for the Library of Congress Network of Libraries for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, was released in 2005.

Because they are autonomous, network libraries develop their own programs and collections. In addition to circulating special-format materials from NLS, they may also loan large-print books and descriptive videos to their patrons. Libraries that have in-house studios record books of local interest for adults and children. The network libraries also hold a variety of community programs, especially activities for youth.

To determine how library service was being provided to children in preschool through junior high, NLS commissioned Leslie Eldridge, a former network librarian, to conduct a study in 1985. She held a series of interviews with youth who were library users, interested parents, special education teachers, child counselors, reading specialists, and librarians to learn how they used libraries and what information needs were or were not being met. Teachers described their use of the NLS program and discussed approaches to conducting classroom reading. Counselors explained how educational systems can encourage happy, healthy, well-rounded children and discussed obstacles that children with handicaps may encounter in some environments.

Ms. Eldridge visited four regional libraries to gather information about the nature of their juvenile readership and programs and to obtain recommendations for improving services for print-handicapped children. The ideas, opinions, and concerns from the various groups were compiled in a report called R Is for Reading. This monograph emphasizes encouraging blind and physically handicapped children to read and use libraries. Common threads in the interviews with the children are their love of reading and the value of books in their lives.

Heidi Coe, thirteen years old at the time, quipped, “I love books. I have one mouth for eating and another for books.” Ten-year-old Masumi Scherb said, “I like both Braille and tapes. I listened to Mutiny on the Bounty. I like to read about ships.” And Tammy Garner, age six, piped, “I like the library because it has lots of books.”

While these comments may cause one to smile, a secondary thread moved NLS to action: the lack of reading materials available to children and the need to expand expertise in the program, as well as awareness about its services. One parent lamented that she couldn’t find books about sports in the collection, a librarian expressed concern that teachers did not know about the talking-book service, and a child was disappointed that she couldn’t get her Winnie-the-Pooh books on tape.

In response to the report, NLS formed an internal Children’s Services Committee in 1987 to follow up on the concerns, issues, viewpoints, and recommendations that related directly to NLS services. The committee, led by Elizabeth Carl, assistant head of the Network Services Section, was charged with developing national outreach activities to expand services to the twenty thousand children enrolled in the program.

The committee focused on improving services and increasing the use of materials available through the program. The members decided that their first duty was to determine current operations and to ensure that guidelines and procedures were written. Members reviewed statistics on juvenile readership and lists of libraries providing specific services to children. They also considered patron reading patterns and educational trends, gathering information from schools for blind individuals and other institutions concerned with services to children.

Year of the Young Reader
While NLS was in the midst of its study focusing on children’s services, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed Public Law 100-662, proclaiming 1989 as the Year of the Young Reader. In January NLS held a kick-off program to recognize young readers who participated in the free library service. Approximately sixty blind and physically handicapped children from schools in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia attended the event, which featured critically acclaimed children’s writer Eloise Greenfield and The Kids on the Block: Puppets with a Purpose. The famous troupe, known for its diversity and inclusion of characters with disabilities, presented a skit based on a special script written for the occasion.

The children participating in the festive event received a colorful reader’s card with print and Braille identifying them as readers in the national free library service. “This personal reader card reaffirms our nation’s goals for all young readers,” noted Frank Kurt Cylke, director of NLS.

The event launched the national distribution of reader’s cards to all network library participants younger than fourteen years of age, often at similar local events throughout the country. NLS sent Year of the Young Reader publicity materials to fourteen hundred public school district special education supervisors and to one thousand public children’s librarians nationally. Regional libraries received Year of the Young Reader cards to distribute to their patrons, and other youngsters received their cards directly through the national automated mailing list. Additional library cards were made available on request from the NLS Publications and Media Section. NLS also reprinted the Discoveries series of four bibliographies in anticipation of increased usage, and later that year, released a list--in print, audio, and Braille--of books favored by young readers.

During the Year of the Young Reader, network libraries also paid special attention to children’s services. Many added new programs and expanded previous activities, using funding in innovative ways to emphasize the excitement that reading brings. In addition, the number of libraries, both public and network, offering summer reading programs increased.

Current activities
Approximately sixty-eight of the 131 cooperating libraries offer summer reading programs. Some participate in their state’s Collaborative Summer Library Program, supported by a grassroots consortium of forty-two state agencies and associations working together to provide high-quality summer reading programs. Network librarians encourage readers to sign up for programs at their local public libraries or offer specialized programs at their sites. Each year, usually in May, network libraries kick off summer reading programs with a specific theme.

Regional libraries conduct many types of incentives to build participation. They hold rallies, performance events featuring favorite authors and games, or other activities for children ages five to fourteen to promote their reading programs. They send invitations to special programs and parties and offer gifts to participants. Some double the amount of space devoted to children in their newsletters, present certificates and prizes at the end of the summer, and ask young readers to share their favorite books. These summer programs normally conclude with a special event and awards ceremony.

Special-needs readers signing up for summer reading programs at their local public libraries either receive books directly from their network libraries or pick them up at their public libraries.

In addition, most of the 131 network libraries provide year-round special services for children--thirteen have children’s story hours and nineteen produce print/Braille books locally. They host reading clubs and hold special programs, such as author celebrations honoring popular writers such as Beverly Cleary and Dr. Seuss. The libraries appeal to children and teenagers with programs like Children’s Book Week and Teen Book Week. In addition, they conduct outreach to schools, community groups serving children and families, hospitals, and rehabilitation centers. The Massachusetts Braille and Talking Book Library and the Minnesota Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, both located on campuses of schools for blind children, have provided juvenile reading services since 1933.

Library staff appears at school in-service training sessions, public library workshops, special-education schools and centers, and conferences attracting children, parents, and caregivers. In their quest to ensure that all children may enjoy reading, these librarians make every effort to inform the public about their services and to let all children know that there is a place for them in the library.

Service in the twenty-first century
NLS recently took another step to encourage juvenile reading among the blind and physically handicapped population. Recognizing that children are spending more time at computers, Patricia Steelman, the Collection Development Section children’s librarian, developed and implemented a page specifically for them on the NLS Web site. Kids Zone, at <www.loc.gov/nls/children/index.html>, allows children to search NLS’s catalog for books that appeal to them, without having to navigate through books for adults. In addition, the site provides links to lists of available books in the most popular children’s series, such as the Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. Children can also learn what magazines are available to them and how to subscribe. In the future, the Web site will carry subject bibliographies for youth, incorporating bibliographies prepared by network libraries, and--once the digital talking-book program is launched--provide live links to downloadable audio files, similar to those already established for Web-Braille.

Steelman, who came to NLS in 1997, has focused on ensuring that multicultural books and award winners are included in the collection of children’s reading materials. At the onset of the new millennium, Hornbook magazine, the Random House Publishing Company, the New York Times Book Review, and the Washington Post’s Book World published lists of classics and books considered to be the best of the century. Steelman consulted these lists to recommend selections for conversion from analog to digital format.

In 2001, the Collection Development Section organized and presented a Children’s and Young Adults’ Services Workshop, a one-day preconference for the biennial National Conference of Librarians Serving Blind and Physically Handicapped Individuals, held in Richmond, Virginia. Network library representatives shared information about their reading programs and listened to children discuss their reading experiences. Beverly Becker, ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, also moderated a panel debate titled “Access vs. Censorship.” The sessions helped empower librarians by creating a forum for sharing and gathering information to strengthen their youth programs and services.

As an active member of the ALA Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), the NLS children’s librarian has served as a standing member of the Schneider Family Book Award committee since its inception in 2003. The award was established by Dr. Katherine Schneider to honor authors and illustrators who portray children living with handicaps as part of the human experience. The committee annually recognizes one picture book, one middle school book, and one teen book.

The programs set in place and encouraged by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped have grown out of the organization’s commitment to supporting life-long readers. Serving children is fundamental to this ideal because childhood is the time when individuals develop a love of reading that fuels an enduring appetite for books. Rocco Fiorentino became an NLS patron when he was five years old. He earned his pet dog, Louis (named after Louis Braille), by reading his first twenty books. “Reading Braille is like putting a light inside me,” he says. “I move my fingers across the dots and a whole new world is open to me, full of opportunities. If I can’t read Braille, I’m just a kid with no future.”

NLS exists to ensure that Rocco and kids like him have promising futures.

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