National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) patrons rely on the 121 cooperating libraries across the country to provide braille and recorded books and magazines. In 2008 alone more than 24 million copies were circulated to a readership exceeding 823,000.
These libraries provide more than reading materials. Many offer services that not only enrich the patrons’ reading experiences but also support independence and access in other areas of their lives
This article, the first in a series that profiles the librarians who exemplify the highest aspirations of the NLS mission, features Richard Smith, director of the Wolfner Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Missouri State Library.
NLS: Talk a little about your background.
RS: I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, attended Penn State University as an undergraduate, and received both my MLS and my PhD from the University of Pittsburgh, School of Library and Information Science.
I have worked as a librarian at four state libraries: Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana, and Missouri. I’ve been a director of a community college library and was assistant director for technical services at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
My NLS career began in 1982 in Louisiana as the network library director for the Louisiana Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, where I stayed for six years. I’ve been the director of the Wolfner Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Missouri since September 2000.
NLS: Did you set out to work as a librarian for blind and physically handicapped patrons?
RS: Not really. I had worked in two state libraries as a reference librarian before applying for the position of director of the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Louisiana.
NLS: How many patrons does Wolfner serve?
RS: Wolfner currently serves 9,208 individual Missourians and more than 1,000 institutions across the state.
NLS: What are some of the other services Wolfner offers its patrons, in addition to braille and talking-book services?
RS: Wolfner provides reference services on blindness and disability-related information to patrons and the public. We have a youth services librarian who works with schools and individuals, and administers an exemplary summer reading program. We also have a reader advisor who ensures that nursing homes, retirement centers, hospitals, and other such establishments across the state receive service that is tailored to their particular needs. Other services and products we provide include a state-of-the-art digital recording studio that specializes in producing books by Missouri authors; outreach programs; a collection of descriptive videos and DVDs; and the telephone newspaper service NFB-NEWSLINE, which features six Missouri newspapers and more than 300 national publications.
NLS: Wolfner was one of the eight libraries that participated in the prelaunch of the digital talking-book system. What steps did you and your staff take to prepare for and carry out the distribution of players and materials?
RS: Wolfner staff prepared by holding weekly transition meetings months before the prelaunch. Our focus was putting in place procedures for expediting player distribution. We discussed early on if we could attempt to satisfy the 20/80 rule for distribution of both players and titles, as well as expedite the service; that is, if we could deliver players to 20 percent of our readers that accounted for 80 percent of the library’s circulation and, with purchased blank cartridges, make copies of 20 percent of the most popular titles that account for 80 percent of the library’s circulation. That combination of the most voracious readers having digital players and access to copies of the most popular books would translate into a successful and speedy transition from analog to digital technology.
Wolfner jump-started the digital transition with our Stream program. Conceived in the summer of 2007 and implemented in early 2009, the Stream program used Wolfner Library trust funds to purchase 500 third-party digital players for use by eligible patrons to download books from the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD). This effort also helped prepare staff for the prelaunch.
NLS: Did you encounter problems?
RS: Consternation arose because many of the questions in those prelaunch meetings had no immediate answers. The digital transition was, of course, a major change to a service that has been provided for 30 years. We were in uncharted waters.
Fortunately Wolfner staff was up to the challenge. Both digital players and books were distributed in record time. Indeed, NLS asked Wolfner staff to distribute additional digital materials because of unfortunate circumstances that prevented other libraries from fulfilling their obligation during the prelaunch.
NLS: So the prelaunch was a success?
RS: Yes. The major triumph was that in the first few weeks, after the distribution of 500 players, not one patron called to say he or she did not know how to use the digital player, which was a primary concern of staff leading up to those first weeks.
NLS: How is the digital rollout going now that the prelaunch has been completed?
RS: Very well. Wolfner converted its cassette-duplication department to digital the day 5,000 blank digital cartridges were delivered. This happened thanks to the Friends of Wolfner Library who purchased 5,000 1GB and 1,000 2GB flash cartridges, plus donated an additional $5,000 to purchase mailing containers. That support allowed the library to be one of the first libraries in the country to bulk duplicate NLS titles to supplement the collection.
Wolfner also leads the network in the number of patrons registered with BARD—615 download readers as of November 30, 2009. This is because we have 500 Victor Reader Streams on loan to Missourians and 2,206 digital talking-book players distributed to our patrons. We also have a proactive BARD promotion: Wolfner patrons can receive a free cartridge and USB cable to download titles from BARD for use on their NLS player.
NLS: What do you consider your greatest accomplishments?
RS: Providing services to Missouri patrons while helping other network librarians. Examples are Wolfner Library recommended readings, which are now used by all network libraries; the You Say How? web site, an audio-enhanced version of Say How, the NLS pronunciation guide for the names of lesser-known and contemporary public figures; and sharing information on the digital transition.
There was also the fostering of change, over a 10-year period, in a Friends group. The group was in a turbulent time when I arrived—to the point that it was withholding fiscal support from the library—but we worked together over the years and now it is cooperative and financially supportive, as is evident in the $50,000 in funds it gave us last year for the duplication of digital titles.
NLS: What do you consider the biggest challenge for Wolfner—and all braille and talking-book libraries—now and in the future?
RS: For talking-book libraries to continue to be viable, we must take stock of our changing environment, both inside and outside of the operations. That would include other organizations such as Bookshare, Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D), Google, and commercial audiobook producers, as well as other technological innovations such as BARD and Internet access through phone and portable devices.
NLS: What is the next goal for Wolfner?
RS: I have yet to receive the most coveted award: the NLS Network Library of the Year (hint, hint).
NLS has scheduled exhibits for 13 conferences during fiscal year 2010 as part of its public outreach effort. Audiences are selected to maximize contact with potential patrons and groups that work with eligible individuals.
Exhibits are operated by staff from NLS and local network affiliates. Conferences on the 2009–2010 schedule are listed below in order of occurrence.
National Association for the Education of Young Children
November 18–21, 2009
Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps
November 18–22, 2009
Gerontological Society of America
November 18–22, 2009
American Library Association
January 15–19, 2010
Texas Music Educators Association
San Antonio, Texas
February 10–13, 2010
Music Library Association
San Diego, California
March 20–24, 2010
National Institute for the Severely Handicapped
May 24–26, 2010
American Library Association
June 24–29, 2010
National Federation of the Blind
July 3–8, 2010
American Council of the Blind
July 10–17, 2010
Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired
Little Rock, Arkansas
July 20–25, 2010
Blinded Veterans Association
August 18–22, 2010
American Legion National Conference
August 27–September 2, 2010
Freddie Peaco, government and volunteer information specialist, retired in July 2009 after more than four decades of service to NLS.
“I have had the pleasure of working with Mrs. Peaco since the 1970s,” said Kurt Cylke, NLS director. “She’s been an invaluable resource for our patrons and staff.”
An only child, Peaco was raised by her maternal grandparents Jacob and Ella Sturdivant. She grew up surrounded by many relatives and friends in her hometown of Wadesboro, North Carolina.
Peaco lost her vision at age seven after DDT settled into her eyes during a crop dusting. She attended the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, North Carolina, for elementary and high school, then went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology from Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1965. She received a master’s degree in public relations and journalism from American University in 1973.
It was at Howard University that Peaco met her husband, James Peaco. They married in 1967 and have a son who now lives in California. “I also have two wonderful granddaughters, ages five and seven,” says Peaco.
A career government employee, Peaco started her career in 1966 with the District of Columbia Child and Family Service Agency, where she assigned social workers to various cases. In August 1967 Peaco joined the NLS Student Services Section.
“My job in Student Services was to help college students locate volunteer groups to produce their textbooks in recorded or braille formats. The goal was to match students with groups that were as close to their colleges as possible,” said Peaco. “I also worked with colleges in preparing them to assist students with obtaining books, recruit readers, and, where possible, direct their students to other available resources. In retrospect, I believe this played a part in the development of today’s student special services on campus.”
Peaco then moved to the NLS Volunteer Utilization Section and Consumer Relations Section before settling in the Reference Section in the 1980s, where she would serve the remainder of her career. “I worked in Reference for more than 20 years,” said Peaco. “It was the perfect place for me. I am very much a ‘people person,’ so I enjoyed researching information and answering questions for patrons and the general public. I think I could really identify with them and understand what they needed.”
Part of her job in Reference was to conduct tours for visitors. “Conducting tours gave me the opportunity to talk about the program and interact with visitors,” she says. Peaco also served as the editor of Update, the quarterly newsletter that features articles about volunteer activities at libraries and agencies cooperating with NLS. “I enjoyed compiling Update. I knew the people I wrote about and I think I knew what they wanted to hear.”
Peaco has served on many committees and boards, both within NLS and with outside organizations, including the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, the National Braille Association, Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, and the Washington Volunteer Readers for the Blind. Of the many awards she has received, she considers as her greatest honor the NLS Abu’l Ala al Ma’arri Award for her outstanding service to the blind and physically handicapped community of the United States of America.
In her 42 years at NLS, Peaco has seen many changes. “I’ve worked under three librarians of congress, two NLS directors, and approximately eight supervisors,” she said. “I’ve also witnessed at least three reorganizations. All have been fulfilling and have helped me grow.
“My greatest hope is that I’ve made someone’s life a little easier and I have served others effectively.”
“The word ‘braille,’ denoting the system of reading and writing by touch used by blind people, is an eponym. This means that the word is in common use in the language but was named after a person: Louis Braille,” explained Judith Dixon, NLS consumer relations officer, during a Library of Congress (LC) Gallery Talk on November 18, 2009.
The Gallery Talk featured a guided tour of the LC exhibition “Louis Braille: His Legacy and Influence,” which commemorates the 200th anniversary of the birth of the inventor. The exhibition, open to the public through January 30, 2010, can be viewed online at http://myloc.gov/Exhibitions/braille/pages/default.aspx. NLS curated the exhibition, supplying many of the items presented.
During her talk, Dixon described and explained several of the 25 exhibit items on display. She talked about the use of technology, highlighting its evolution from the 1951 Perkins Brailler to the lighter New Generation Brailler. She also talked about Web-Braille, which allows NLS patrons to download braille reading material from the Internet, and equipment like the Braille Wave and the Braille Notetaker. Also included in the display are a 1954 braille edition of Scrabble; a tactile watch; a 1955 braille edition of “Good Morning, America” by Carl Sandburg; braille music transcription; a photo of the Library of Congress Reading Room for the Blind, circa 1902; and the commemorative 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar. All items are labeled in braille as well as print.
In response to questions about the types of braille, Dixon explained that braille can be read letter by letter in its uncontracted form, but most people read contracted braille, which uses combinations of letters that make reading and writing braille more efficient.
Dixon explained that though braille is the medium most widely used by blind people for reading and writing today, it was not used during Braille’s lifetime. “The school he attended did not adopt it,” she explained, “and Louis Braille died not knowing the extent of his contribution.”
Born January 4, 1809, in Coupvray, France, Braille lost his sight at age three as a result of an injury. Educated at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, Braille was recognized as highly intelligent and creative. By age 15, he had developed the initial version of a tactile system for reading and writing—later refined to a raised, six-dot cell with 64 possible combinations corresponding to the alphabet, punctuation, and key symbols. He later devised braille systems for music and mathematics.
A talented cellist and organist, Braille became a well-respected teacher at the institute. He died at age 43 in 1852 from tuberculosis. The braille system was first taught two years after his death, and by 1868 it had spread worldwide. Today there are approximately 85 braille systems in the world based on his invention.
U.S. veterans first recipients of digital talking-book players
Digital talking-book players are making their way into network libraries, and U.S. veterans are at the top of the list to receive them. Several NLS cooperating libraries held special events to present veterans with the new machines. Others created outreach programs for veterans to inform them of the library’s services and of veterans’ special status in receiving the new equipment.
Arizona. On September 11, 2009, Arizona Senate President Robert Burns and several lawmakers handed out 23 digital talking-book players to Phoenix-area veterans during a special presentation. The event took place at the restored senate chambers of the historic capitol building in Phoenix. The players were the first of the 150 digital machines received by the Arizona State Braille and Talking Book Library to be distributed to its patrons. The remaining 127 available players were mailed to veterans who could not attend the ceremony.
Kansas. Three staff members of Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library Talking Books visited the home of 95-year-old Norbert Hoffman of Centralia on September 21, 2009, to present the World War II veteran with the first digital talking-book player issued to a northeast Kansas patron. With only a few minutes’ instruction, Hoffman began reading his first digital book, Westerns of the 40’s: Classics from the Great Pulps.
Montana. Three World War II veterans were the first readers in Montana to receive digital talking-book players. Sid Beausoleil, 86; Clarence Jones, 87; and Svend Wind, 82, received their new machines on November 18, 2009, at the Hearst Free Library in Anaconda. Christie Briggs, program manager of the Montana Talking Book Library, said the Anaconda veterans received the players first because “they are so active in the program—they are very well educated in what our service does.”
Wind has read 2,500 books since joining the program in 1994. “With my vision, I can’t read printed material unless it’s magnified. This way I can read a book that’s narrated by a good reader,” said Wind. “Talking books are a godsend to me.”
New Jersey. New Jersey State Library Talking Book and Braille Center, in Trenton, is reaching out to veterans in its area through the distribution of a promotional card that features the text “You’ve served your country. Now let us serve you” on the front and lists the library’s services and contact information on the back.
California library awarded medal for community service
Braille Institute Library Services in Los Angeles is one of the 10 recipients of the 2009 National Medal for Museum and Library Service. The medal, awarded each year since 1994 by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), recognizes institutions for outstanding social, educational, environmental, or economic contributions to their communities. The IMLS is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums.
“Every day the Braille Institute Library Services makes a real difference in its community,” said IMLS director Anne-Imelda M. Radice. “Its exemplary programs respond to community challenges. I applaud the Braille Institute’s efforts and encourage others to follow its example.”
Florida library honored with two awards
The Florida Bureau of Braille and Talking Book Library Services (BBTBLS) in Daytona Beach garnered two awards for its services in 2009.
Experience Works, a community-based organization focused on meeting the training and employment needs of low-income seniors, selected BBTBLS as the first recipient from Florida of the National Champion Host Agency Award. The award acknowledges extraordinary contributions an agency makes in its community every year. BBTBLS was cited specifically for its 19 years as a senior community service employment program that has hosted more than 20 program participants and employs a staff of whom 60 percent are age 55 and older.
Michael G. Gunde, director of the BBTBLS, was selected for the Maria Chavez-Hernandez Libraries Change People’s Lives Award from the Florida Library Association (FLA), which recognizes a library employee or employees who have made a demonstrably positive difference in the lives of Florida library patrons.
FLA commended Gunde and the library for “dedication in providing products and services to patrons who have visual, physical, and reading disabilities.”
The award was named in honor of Maria Chavez-Hernandez, an associate professor at the Florida State University College of Information, who was an advocate of library services and library and informational services education for minorities. Dr. Chavez-Hernandez lost her battle with cancer in 2008.
Utah State Library hosts exhibit of works by blind and physically handicapped artists
Utah’s first lady Jeanne Herbert joined more than 70 artists on October 16, 2009, for the kickoff of “Art beyond Bounds,” an exhibit of works in all media by artists who are blind or physically handicapped.
“This is very exciting because it’s the first time there has been a venue for local artists with various visual and physical handicaps to show their work,” said Kathy Holt, one of the 30 artists whose work was on display. “I lost my sight 22 years ago and was very depressed, but I learned I didn’t need to see 100 percent to do my art.”
The library partnered with five other organizations to sponsor the show at the Rio Grande Mezzanine Gallery in Salt Lake City, which ran through January 4, 2010.
South Florida native David Fernández-Barrial has assumed responsibility for the NLS foreign-language collections. The post has been vacant since the retirement of James Herndon in late 2006.
As foreign-language librarian in the Collection Development Section, Fernández-Barrial selects and annotates books in Spanish to be mass duplicated in digital format and on audiocassette for distribution to network libraries. He will acquire special-format books in other languages through purchase and exchange, consult with librarians and staff throughout the NLS network to assess and accommodate expressed needs for foreign-language materials, and develop long-range plans for surveying underserved language communities.
“I consider it an honor to contribute to the NLS mission and to use my skills to build the collections for our patrons,” Fernández-Barrial said. “As a lover of words, literature, and human dialog in all its forms, I welcome the challenge of helping to carry NLS braille and audiobook programs into the digital future.”
Fernández-Barrial joins NLS after 12 years of service in the U.S. Copyright Office where, most recently, he was lead information specialist and team leader in the Public Information Office, answering the most complex information and reference requests, fielding all Spanish-language inquiries, and managing the Spanish-language content of its web site. He represented the Copyright Office at conferences throughout the country, explaining the principles of copyright and exchanging information with librarians, publishers, writers, artists, musicians, attorneys, and foreign copyright officials.
Fernández-Barrial was born in Miami to Cuban parents. He received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Florida International University in 1993 and a master’s degree in library and information science from the Catholic University of America in 2008.