Spotlight on Quality: Kim Charlson
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) patrons rely on 121 cooperating libraries across the country and in U.S. territories to provide braille and recorded books and magazines. In 2008 alone more than 24 million copies were circulated to a readership exceeding 800,000.
These libraries provide more than reading materials. Many offer services that not only enrich their patrons' reading experiences but also support independence and access in other areas of their lives.
This article, the second in a series that profiles the librarians who exemplify the highest aspirations of the NLS mission, features Kim Charlson, director of the Perkins Braille and Talking Book Library in Massachusetts.
NLS: Kim, please talk a bit about your background.
KC: I received a bachelor of science degree in political science from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, in 1979 and my MLS from the University of North Texas in Denton in 1984.
I have worked at braille and talking-book libraries since then. My first job was with the Oregon State Library Talking Book and Braille Service, as the textbook production specialist. I then moved to the Braille and Talking Book Library (BTBL) at Perkins School for the Blind in January 1985 as the service management librarian/assistant director. I became the director of the library in December of 2001.
I chose librarianship because, as a braille reader and avid user of talking books, I wanted to be in a decision-making capacity in the library field and influence the direction of accessible library services for people with disabilities.
NLS: How many patrons does Perkins Library serve?
KC: The Perkins Library annually circulates approximately 475,000 books, magazines, and playback machines and accessories to 24,000 readers. During this past year, our librarians answered 1,500 reference questions, providing the information in the patrons' preferred formats. Our 200 volunteers-who are vital to the success of our program-contributed more than 10,000 hours in clerical support, book inspection, machine repair, braille production, tape duplication, and narration.
NLS: Perkins Library offers many services beyond providing audio and braille books and magazines. Describe some of them and the impact they have had on your patrons and the blind community.
KC: We have launched several digital talking-book educational initiatives. In anticipation of the digital talking book and the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) program, the library launched a Victor Stream loan program, which allows patrons to borrow a third-party player free of charge for 30 days. Staff preloaded each of the 20 available third-party players, which retail for more than $300, with four or five digital books that were selected based on the patron's reading profile. More than 200 patrons have had a chance to participate in this program.
We also schedule monthly hands-on BARD classes for patrons and provide extensive technical support for BARD users via phone and e-mail. And we have developed a digital equipment loan policy to ensure equitable distribution of digital playback equipment to NLS priority patron groups as well as other key
Other patron programs and services the library provides include:
- A CCTV (closed-captioned television) loan program places equipment into borrowers' homes. More than 50 CCTVs have been loaned and, as the program expands, names are being placed on a waiting list pending the availability of donated equipment.
- Brailler repair and brailler loan programs provide free repairs to patrons' personal braillers and allow patrons to borrow braillers on short-term loan while their units are being repaired or for other temporary needs.
- Braille awareness kits are distributed on request to teachers, students, or community groups, providing them with in-depth information about braille.
- Free access to Bookshare.org, an online community that enables people with visual and other print disabilities to legally share scanned books. Library staff members download the files and e-mail them to patrons who are uncertain how to use the service on their own. After a three-month full membership at no cost, Bookshare provides the borrowers the opportunity to set up a continuing membership at the standard price.
These are just a few of the services and programs Perkins Library offers, in addition to lending materials.
NLS: You have also conducted many creative outreach and awareness programs. How do these ideas come about and which do you think have been most effective?
KC: I attribute a large part of the library's success to the full support of the administration of the Perkins School for the Blind. President Steven Rothstein has spent many hours advocating for funding. The board of trustees has also extended tremendous support and confidence in the direction library management is going. Successful outreach has been a collective effort, and we share in the great ideas as well as the ones that don't make it off the cutting-room floor.
In July 2007, more than 200 Perkins Library and Watertown Free Public Library patrons, as well as Perkins School for the Blind students and staff, attended an event celebrating the simultaneous release of the braille and print editions of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Two young braille readers, Matthew Shifrin and Marisa Parker, joined Boston Celtics alumnus Dana Barros and director of player personnel Dave Wohl to read aloud the first chapter. Guests also enjoyed playing adapted basketball and listening to an 18-piece roving brass band.
The library also held the Fenway at Perkins book-and-author event on September 18, 2008. Carl Beane, the voice of Fenway Park (and a BTBL narrator), was emcee and Johnny Pesky, whose career with the Boston Red Sox has spanned 56 years, was a guest. Nearly 250 people came from all across Massachusetts to honor their team. Afterwards, guests were photographed with the 2004 and 2007 World Series trophies. Books were sold and autographed, and attendees received special baseball caps with the Perkins logo embroidered in Sox colors of navy and red.
A huge legislative success for Perkins was the 2009 "blindfold" letter to the state legislature that included a factsheet detailing the impact of cutting 17 percent-$343,359-from the library's line-item account and a blindfold. Assistant Senate Majority Whip Steven Tolman (D-Watertown) agreed to wear the blindfold while attempting to conduct the state's business. He found it challenging just to find his desk and realized he was even cut off from activities as simple as checking the headlines in the morning paper.
NLS: Perkins was one of the eight libraries selected by NLS to participate in the prelaunch of the digital talking-book system. How did you and your staff prepare for and carry out the distribution of players and materials?
KC: Massachusetts was very honored to be part of the digital prelaunch in 2009. Players and two copies of digital books were distributed to nearly 525 patrons and the response has been very favorable-the number-one comment is how easy the player is to use.
A postcard was sent to all active borrowers in Massachusetts announcing the availability of the digital machine and encouraging them to contact the library and have their names added to the wait list. The response was truly overwhelming. We have now filled all requests from our wait list, and staff members are identifying people who order digital books but don't yet have a digital player.
We identified two shipping-related issues during the prelaunch. The first was a mailing-container design flaw that caused the mailing card to slip out of the container, but NLS resolved that problem. The second issue was a post office problem, with the smaller blue containers falling into the automatic sorting equipment and jamming the hardware. Our warehouse operations manager Ron Heaton went to the South Boston post office to meet with the line staff at 2:30 a.m., when talking books are generally processed. Video showing the problem was recorded, and the agreed-upon short-term solution was to manually sort the blue cartridge containers separately from the green cassette containers. For the time being, things seem better and materials are getting
NLS: What do you consider your greatest accomplishments?
KC: One of the most fulfilling moments for me personally and professionally was accepting the 2008 Network Library of the Year Award on behalf of Perkins Library staff.
NLS: What do you consider the biggest challenge(s) for Perkins-and all braille and talking-book libraries-now and in the future?
KC: Probably the most serious challenge for braille and talking-book libraries is funding. The state of the economy is serious for libraries, and keeping specialized library services up front and center is hard work. Advocacy and collaborations with consumers and other library groups are essential to getting our message carried by as many groups and individuals as possible. This strategy may also work for outreach. There are literally thousands of people who are eligible for services but don't know about them; traditional avenues of outreach need to be expanded to connect with these new populations to introduce them to our program. With an estimated one out of four individuals over the age of 65 experiencing some level of vision or other impairment affecting their ability to read in the next 10-15 years, our services will be even more important. As technologies expand and available informational resources grow, we must figure out ways to make sure that our patrons can take advantage of these. What that might be is still up in the air, but I know it is out there and will be a step forward for our patrons. These are challenging but exciting times to be in the business of providing access to information and reading.
My next challenge? Only a small percentage of information is published in accessible formats. Much electronic and online content is in PDF form, which doesn't always work well with many screen readers. I plan on working with major digital initiatives such as those of Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and many others to get them to build accessibility into these projects. That will keep us all busy for many years to come.
In August 2009 NLS Web-Braille marked ten years of providing downloadable braille books to patrons. The pioneering service was not only the first NLS effort to deliver library materials directly to the homes of patrons via digital means; it was the first time, worldwide, that a large-scale braille book collection was made available over the Internet.
"Establishing Web-Braille was a great accomplishment, and one that clearly demonstrated our commitment to keeping up with advances in information technology," said NLS director Frank Kurt Cylke. "At the time, we were beginning to develop a digital talking book. Web-Braille's release proved that NLS could successfully move into the digital age."
NLS began pilot testing Web-Braille a year before its formal launch. To recruit testers, NLS consumer relations officer Judy Dixon distributed notices to listservs used by blind readers. Within a month, more than 100 readers had signed up for access to the 50-book trial collection. The positive response of these early patrons encouraged NLS to quickly advance the system from testing to a full-fledged service.
When Web-Braille launched on August 24, 1999, the service offered 2,600 titles. Today, approximately 5,000 Web-Braille subscribers have access to more than 10,000 books, several thousand musical scores, issues of 40 magazines, and a selection of sports schedules. Thanks to an encoding system that transforms each braille volume into a simple text file, even the largest work (which, as of January 2010, was the 29-volume Joy of Cooking: 75th Anniversary Edition) can be quickly retrieved by patrons whose limited Internet access speeds make audio downloads time consuming.
Web-Braille's interface is also easy to use. "Years ago, I met a young boy, maybe seven years old, at a convention," recalled Dixon. "When he learned I helped create Web-Braille, he got very excited and proudly announced that he was able to use the service all by himself." Other patrons have described the experience of using Web-Braille, with its straightforward navigation and nearly instant delivery, as similar to browsing in a well-stocked bookstore.
A precursor to digital audio download
The lessons learned in the Web-Braille trials provided valuable information to NLS staff when creating the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) service, which formally launched in April 2009 as an online repository for NLS talking books. "The phones were quiet during the first few weeks after BARD's official launch, but we made the mistake of assuming they would continue to be," said Dixon.
NLS currently administers both Web-Braille and BARD from its Washington, D.C., headquarters. But from the beginning, BARD was designed with the intent that many of its administrative controls, including the ability to reset user passwords, would eventually be transferred to regional libraries. That transition began in late 2009. Once it is completed, NLS will begin the next major step in BARD's evolution: bringing Web-Braille under its umbrella.
This is a necessary step. Web-Braille has served the community well, but after 10 years, the software is showing its age. As NLS research and development officer Neil Bernstein explained, "Web-Braille's code was not written to allow it to expand indefinitely, and the system has begun to reach its limits. We designed BARD to be scalable. It makes better use of dynamic coding, and many behind-the-scenes things that had to be done manually in Web-Braille can be automated in BARD. By moving braille material into BARD, we can ensure its long-term availability."
The move will allow patrons to search for books in both braille and audio formats at the same time. It will also remedy one current inconvenience: under Web-Braille, book file names are a string of numbers that seem random to the user. BARD file names include the author and title of the book, making it easier for patrons to locate the book they want to read in their collection of downloaded files.
Joining the two services won't diminish NLS's commitment to providing a constantly expanding selection of digitally accessible braille books and magazines. Web-Braille, Dixon explained, has played a critical role in encouraging braille literacy. "A lot of people are reading braille books because they can download them onto their braille notetakers and read them in refreshable braille," Dixon said. In contrast, printed braille books are bulky and can be difficult for some patrons to transport or manipulate.
Increased use and popularity
While individuals most often access Web-Braille through braille notetakers, schools have embraced the ability to emboss their own copies of braille books. Most regional libraries have only one or two copies of each braille title on their shelves. That's adequate for individual readers, but it becomes a problem when an entire classroom of students needs multiple copies of the same book at the same time. Using Web-Braille, teachers with access to embossers are able to print duplicates on demand.
Public response to Web-Braille, which AccessWorld once declared "the best thing to come along since the interpoint embosser," has been enthusiastic. "We're pleased by Web-Braille's popularity," said Cylke. "At NLS, we are dedicated to improving the accessibility and usefulness of our collections. Digital distribution has made access much more convenient for many of our patrons."
As Web-Braille enters its second decade, its collection continues to grow. The digital files themselves are a natural by-product of creating physical braille publications, so every NLS-produced contracted braille title, with the exception of print/braille books, becomes available online. Files are automatically added to Web-Braille when the physical versions are approved for shipment. The system also incorporates hundreds of books produced by NLS cooperating libraries.
A factsheet on using Web-Braille can be found on the NLS web site at www.loc.gov/nls/reference/factsheets/webbraille.html.
On January 21, National Federation of the Blind (NFB) president Marc Maurer addressed staff at the Library of Congress on the need for digital information, including electronic books, to be made available to the blind community. Maurer urged the Library, which is participating in the creation of the World Digital Library, to work with blind Americans to make sure that this new resource will be accessible for all.
"The Library of Congress is recognized throughout the world and revered by those who cherish knowledge. I myself have spent time in the stacks of the law library and have conducted research that helped to change the lives of blind workers in America," said Maurer. "As the Library pursues the creation of a worldwide body of information made available to people through the newest technologies, we are asking that the plans incorporate nonvisual access for the blind and print-disabled. The Library of Congress, which has been such a magnificent leader in protecting and defending intellectual property and making it available for use by scholars and others, can lead once again in this spectacular effort. I look forward to working with you in making it happen."
National conference in Des Moines to celebrate digital talking-book rollout and prepare for the next step
The 2010 National Conference of Librarians Serving Blind and Physically Handicapped Individuals will convene May 16-20 at the Des Moines Marriott Downtown Hotel in Des Moines, Iowa. The conference, titled We All Did It! The Digital Future Is Now!, will focus on fully implementing the digital talking-book system throughout the NLS network of cooperating libraries. A preconference workshop on local production of digital books and magazines will be held on Saturday, May 15, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
The conference will open on Sunday at 1:00 p.m. with welcome addresses by NLS director Kurt Cylke, Iowa Department of the Blind director Karen Keninger, and Iowa regional librarian Tracy Morsek. NLS section heads will present program overviews to the attending network librarians. Regional conference meetings will follow.
Monday's keynote address will be given by Stephen Kuusisto, a poet and faculty member at the University of Iowa, where he teaches creative nonfiction in the English Department and serves as a public humanities scholar in the Iowa Carver Institute for Macular Degeneration. Other speakers include Tom Miller, executive director of the Blinded Veterans Association, and Michael Hingson, who, led by his guide dog Roselle, escaped from the World Trade Center after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Thursday's sessions will include NLS automation officer Michael Martys and research and development officer Neil Bernstein leading a training workshop for the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) service, and several regional librarians and NLS staff members conducting a BARD best-practices roundtable.
The Herman H.B. Meyer Memorial Literary Club and Declamatory Society will host a reception in the hotel's ballroom on Sunday evening. Conference attendees will tour Terrace Hill, the Iowa governor's mansion, and the historic Salisbury House and Gardens on Wednesday, followed by a reception at the Des Moines Botanical Center hosted by Keystone Library Automation Services. The conference will wrap up with a trip to the ballpark, where the Iowa Cubs will play the Colorado Sky Sox.
Des Moines: Iowa's Capital City
Iowa's capital is home to 200,000 people and is recognized as a center for government, education, business, culture, and the arts. Local attractions include:
Principal Riverwalk. Constructed in 2004, the Riverwalk features lighted, landscaped public spaces; sculpture; and pedestrian bridges and pathways that connect 300 miles of Central Iowa walking paths and bike trails.
Des Moines Art Center. The internationally acclaimed museum houses works by 19th and 20th century artists, including Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keefe, and Henri Matisse. The center's three buildings were designed by celebrated architects Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei, and Richard Meier.
Iowa State Capitol. Built between 1871 and 1886, the capitol features works of art and fixtures and carvings in wood and stone. The capitol dome, externally gilded with 23-karat gold leaf, can be seen for miles. Tours, which take about one hour, may be scheduled between 8:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., Monday-Friday. Saturday tours are every hour starting at 9:30 a.m. and ending at 2:30 p.m. Groups must schedule in advance.
Friends of the Libraries for the Blind and Physically Handicapped Individuals of North America
Brynhild "Beo" Mitchell, a Munising institution
Brynhild "Beo" Oas Mitchell was only 19 years old when she and two girlfriends set off hitchhiking from their hometown of Munising, Michigan, to Yellowstone National Park in 1923. At age 104, she rode in Munising's 2008 Fourth of July parade on the deck of a red Corvette.
Such experiences are typical of Beo's approach to life-all 106 years of it so far.
Beo, who has called the shores of Lake Superior home for almost all of those years, has been an NLS patron since the late 1990s, when macular degeneration began to steal her vision. She is served by the Upper Peninsula Library for the Blind in Marquette, Michigan. Ruth Ruff, head of library programs for the blind, finds Beo to be an "independent, spunky lady, but very kind-the type of person you'd want as a friend."
Born Brynhild Oas to parents who met in Michigan after immigrating to the United States from Norway, she chose to be called "Beo," taken from her initials, because "so many people mispronounced my name that I decided to give myself a nickname that was easy," she explained.
One of her earliest memories is sitting on her father's shoulders to see the spectacular approach of Halley's Comet in 1910. She was only six, but the memory is still vivid. "It came from the east over the hill-a great huge ball of fire," she recalled. She saw the comet again on its next pass by the earth in 1986, although that time it was much less dramatic.
Beo's lifelong love of reading helped her get a job as Munising's librarian in 1923, soon after she returned from that trip to Yellowstone in a used Model-T Ford one of her girlfriends had bought in Minneapolis en route. It was a job she kept until 1942. Her only formal training was a few summer-school classes at Northern State Normal School (now Northern Michigan University) in Marquette.
She married Edmond Mitchell, a friend of her brother's, in 1941. Edmond worked at the Munising Paper Company and was a Boy Scout leader. Though her husband passed away in 1991, Beo stayed in their Munising house until April 2009, when she moved to an assisted-living facility.
Beo's reading choices reflect her wide-ranging interests. She likes both fiction and nonfiction, including history, biography, and travelogues-"something I can learn from," she said. She recently finished a Perry Mason mystery and Kabul Beauty School, the memoir of a Michigan hairdresser who opened the first modern salon in post-Taliban Afghanistan.
Like most devoted readers, Beo loves to share her thoughts on the books she has read. Writing is difficult for her now, but for years, Ruff said, "almost every book she would return she'd have a little note on what it's about and whether I should read it."
Beo Mitchell has been something of an institution in Munising. There's even an oak tree planted in her honor on the grounds of the Alger County Historical Society Museum, where the grade school she attended as a child once stood. "She always says 'I'm not an inspiration,'" Beo's daughter Beverly Micallef said. "But to so many people she is!"
The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is once again offering NLS patrons a free one-day pass to Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea in Mystic, Connecticut.
The seaport is a world-renowned, not-for-profit historical and educational institution that occupies thirty-seven acres on the Mystic River near New London.
Highlights include restored tall ships, tours by shipwrights and craftsmen, and a variety of exhibit galleries. The pass entitles two adults and three children or grandchildren under 18 to free admission on the day of the week specified on the pass. The opportunity is available year-round.
Interested parties may e-mail email@example.com at least two weeks prior to the desired visit date with their name, street address, telephone number, and the date and day of the week they wish to visit Mystic Seaport. To request a pass by mail, address the request to the Mystic Pass Coordinator, Publications and Media Section, NLS/BPH, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20542. Postal service to NLS in Washington is subject to security examination, so requests should be mailed six to eight weeks before the planned visit date. The pass will be sent by express delivery and will include a prepaid return envelope.
For visitor information on Mystic Seaport, including accessibility details, membership opportunities, special events, directions, and lodging, go to www.mysticseaport.org.