Cylke retires after four decades as NLS director

Picture of Frank Kurt Cylke
Frank Kurt Cylke

After 38 years of service, Frank Kurt Cylke retired as director of NLS on February 28, 2011. During his tenure, Cylke shepherded the talking-book program into the digital age, overseeing the transformation from analog audiocassette books, magazines, and players to books on flash-memory cartridges and digital talking-book machines. Under his leadership, circulation increased to more than 27 million audio and braille books and magazines and readership increased 155 percent.
The concept of using digital media was first introduced in 1990, when representatives of four national agencies serving blind and physically handicapped individuals met in Dublin, Ireland, and agreed to full exchange of technological information. Beginning in 1997, NLS coordinated the development of ANSI/NISO Z39.86-2002, the national standard for the Digital Talking Book (DTB), which the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) approved in 2002. The standard made electronic resources in DTB format more accessible to print-disabled readers worldwide. In August 2009—after nearly two decades of extensive research, planning, design, production, testing, and modification—distribution of the digital talking-book system was fully underway.

The process required ongoing consultation with patrons, librarians, and contractors across the country and around the globe. "Many, many steps were taken to ensure the materials were appropriately designed, thoroughly tested, and properly produced," said NLS Materials Development Division chief Michael Katzmann, whom Cylke hired as head of the Engineering Section in 2005 and tasked with implementing the transformation from analog to digital. "Kurt made certain we didn't proceed until we were ready," Katzmann recalled.

Under Cylke's stewardship the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD), designed by automation officer Michael Martys and research and development officer Neil Bernstein, was launched as a pilot project in October 2006. The pilot program was recognized by the Blind Bargains Access Awards as Website of the Year in 2008, based entirely on submissions from visitors to, a leading online resource for blind and visually impaired people. The service was open to all eligible patrons in April 2009.

The total number of downloads during BARD's first three months was 1,606 books and 295 magazines. On February 21, 2010, BARD had its 1 millionth download, Charlotte's Web

In 2004, Cylke created the 10-Squared Talking-Book Club to recognize the more than 1,600 centenarians who were active readers in the program. Edna White, 103 years old from Jacksonville, North Carolina, was the club's first inductee on October 24 of that year. Since then, more than 450 patrons have been inducted.

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Mending fences, building bridges
Cylke became director on July 16, 1973, and quickly learned the importance of everyone having equal access to books—as well as how diligently he would have to work to uphold that principle. Part of his approach was to improve relationships with organizations serving blind and physically handicapped individuals, including the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the American Council of the Blind (ACB), and the Blinded Veterans Association (BVA).

"I think the highlight of my service was making a rapprochement with the organized blind community, understanding how important the library program was and is for information and recreation to the community, and turning the NLS into a consumer-oriented program," Cylke said in an interview published in the NFB Braille Monitor in May 2011. His efforts were rewarded with longstanding partnerships and friendships.

"Immediately upon becoming director of the program, he initiated a series of semiannual meetings with consumer groups to gain insight about the nature of the service and to learn about methods for improving it," NFB president Marc Maurer said. "He came to be not only a beloved librarian but also a supporter of programming for the blind in the United States and beyond our borders."

Tom Miller, executive director of BVA, echoed Maurer's sentiments, saying Cylke did "a marvelous job."

Cylke's work with constituent groups earned him respect in the blind community. On July 7, 2005, NFB presented Cylke with its Newell Perry Award "in recognition of courageous leadership and outstanding service. Our colleague, our friend, our brother on the barricades; you champion our progress; you strengthen our hopes; you share our dreams." 

ACB presented the Robert S. Bray Award to Cylke in 2007 for "his steadfast commitment to a digital talking-book program that will serve blind Americans throughout the 21st century."

In a tribute to the advent of digital talking books and players—and to the man who ushered in the new medium—Braille Institute Library Services in Los Angeles presented Cylke the first Frank Kurt Cylke Digital Platinum Award in October 2010.

These are just three of the many awards (see page 4) the former NLS director received during his career.

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Finding his passion
Cylke entered federal service in 1968, when he was hired by the U.S. Office of Education library, serving first as a research associate and later as chief of the Library and Information Services Research Branch. He remained there until coming to the Library of Congress in 1970, as executive secretary of the Federal Library Committee, now the Federal Library and Information Center Committee (FLICC). In 1972 he added chairing the U.S. National Libraries Task Force on Cooperative Activities to his responsibilities. 

Before his federal service, Cylke was assistant librarian of the Providence Public Library in Rhode Island; head of Reference and Public Relations at New Haven Free Public Library in Connecticut; reference assistant at the Bridgeport Public Library in Connecticut; and library and resident master of the Graham-Eckes School in Palm Beach, Florida, where he also taught sailing.

Picture of Cylke and QA staff
Cylke and NLS Quality Assurance staff members (left to right) Robert Norton, Margaret Goergen-Rood, and Bob Mainhart pose with the last C-1 cassette player produced in 2007. The former director shepherded the talking-book program into the digital age.


A native of New Haven, Connecticut, Cylke became interested in a library career through part-time work at the Yale University Library while attending the University of Connecticut. But his love affair with libraries and books began much earlier.

As a young child, Cylke developed an affinity for Melville's Moby Dick and anything by British writer Arthur Ransome. He often expressed his appreciation for the characters Ransome created in his Swallows and Amazons series. During an interview for the Library of Congress Library Services Journal, Cylke said, "When I was nine years old (I can remember the day), my mother took me by the hand and I walked into the Donald G. Mitchell Branch of the New Haven Public Library and found a book called Swallows and Amazons . . . The characters became real to me."

In 1978 Cylke donated a collection of Ransome's books and other writings to Georgetown University Library in Washington, D.C. The collection included more than 80 books by the author in half a dozen languages and more than a dozen signed and typed letters.

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"Grab a chance"
The spirit captured in the Amazons and Swallows series shaped Cylke's work ethic and management style as well. He often quoted to staff a passage from the 1937 novel We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea from the Swallows and Amazons series: "Grab a chance and you won't be sorry for a might-have-been." It was a philosophy that Cylke personified.  He had high expectations of his staff and could be very demanding.

"He had an incredible energy and brilliant sense of strategy," said John Bryant, head of the Production Control Section at NLS. "He was always looking beyond ‘today.'" 

Jane Caulton, head of the Publications and Media Section said, "Kurt's major concern was that the program meet the needs of patrons. He held staff to a high standard of operating and was always looking for ways to improve what we do.

"He could be a pit bull in attaining the goals of the program," she added. "At the same time, he maintained a charisma that drew people in."

Cylke's love of storytelling was well known to staff and other colleagues. Margaret Goergen-Rood, assistant head of the Quality Assurance Section, said, "A simple compliment gave him a chance to launch into a story or two that may have nothing to do with the compliment. It was just a friendly segue into what he really wanted to do, which was entertain you with one of his many elaborate observations on life. I guess that makes him a storyteller, which is what NLS produces after all—great stories!"

Deputy director Bob Fistick agreed.  "Kurt mixes his passion for verbal communication with humor and storytelling that would seem endless at times, but proved an effective foil in dealing with everyday work situations, as well as with conflict.

"When things seemed to be bothersome or he just wanted time to think, if you were in earshot of his office, you would hear a range of musical interludes or famous sport broadcasts emanating," said Fistick. And too numerous to count were the mornings that Cylke entered the office singing Cole Porter's 1934 classic "You're the Top" or tap dancing while singing "The Candy Man."

In 2008 Cylke drafted a list of desired staff characteristics, one of which was that NLS employees must "have the flexibility to change methods and procedures, to accept new ideas, to innovate, and to discard practices that have outgrown their usefulness." Under this statement, Cylke made certain to note that "NLS exists for only one reason—to give service to its users. All practices must be measured against this yardstick." 

Although Cylke is no longer leading NLS, these practices and the yardstick by which NLS measures them remain. And his commitment to equal access to reading continues into his retirement, as an official member of NFB—which he joined "the day after I retired; I couldn't do that when I was a government employee"—and as a volunteer at the Great Falls Library in Virginia.

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Cylke's Awards

1964—John Cotton Dana Award, American Library Association
1982—Francis Joseph Campbell Citation and Medal, American Library Association
1984—Library of Congress Superior Service Award
1992—Virginia Cultural Laureate
1994—Joseph W. Lippincott Award, American Library Association
1994—Lt. Colonel Edwin Albert Baker Medal, Canadian National Institute for the Blind
1996—Dr. Dayton M. Forman Memorial Award, Canadian National Institute for the Blind
2005—Newel Perry Award, National Federation of the Blind
2006—Regional Community Recycling Leadership Award, Rechargeable Battery Corporation
2007—Robert S. Bray Award, American Council of the Blind
2007—Golden Cassette Award for Library Partnership, Braille Institute of America
2010—Frank Kurt Cylke Digital Platinum Award, Braille Institute of America

Cylke chats with 8 year old Emily Bear

Cylke chats with eight-year-old pianist Emily Bear during the Braille Institute's 2010 annual open house.

Picture of the Frank Kurt Cylke Digital Platinum Award

Cylke was the premier recipient of the Institute's first Frank Kurt Cylke Digital Platinum Award.

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Collection Development Advisory Group meet, offer recommendations for NLS collections and procedures

The NLS Collection Development Advisory Group learned that the Library has started the search for a new NLS director following Kurt Cylke's retirement in February, and on the latest stage of the digital transition when it convened in Washington, D.C., May 25–27, 2011. The group, representing NLS patrons, librarians, and consumer organizations, meets annually to discuss and develop recommendations for NLS book and magazine selection.

"Magazines are the last part of the program to transition to digital," Michael Katzmann, chief of the Materials Development Division, told the committee members, adding that a number of libraries will take part in a pilot project in 2012. "NLS hopes to break even producing magazines on digital cartridges—we will be in a different situation financially next year, as we will not be given an increase in funds."

Katzmann reminded the group of fiscal realities. "We like the various points of view we get from this committee and appreciate the reality check on how we are doing," he said. "But we ask that you bear in mind the practicalities of what you recommend and think about how much bang for the buck you will get."

Katzmann also noted that 75 percent of the network libraries have received digital talking-book players and that production of cassette audiobooks has ceased. 

NLS deputy director Robert Fistick asked members to think about ways the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) could be made bigger and better. "BARD is still the new kid on the block," said Fistick. "We are looking for ways to make it a larger site, like a mainstream library would have."

After deliberations, the group presented 21 recommendations, including:

Consumer organization representatives:

Steve Speicher, American Council of the Blind
Claudia Perry, Blinded Veterans Association
David Hyde, National Federation of the Blind

Katherine Schneider, Midlands Conference
Betty Woodward, Northern Conference
Larry Johnson, Southern Conference
Philip Cooney, Western Conference (unable to attend)

Andrew Shockley, Midlands Conference
Teresa R. Faust, Northern Conference
Ruth Hemphill, Southern Conference
John Mugford, Western Conference
Elizabeth Burns, Children's/Young Adult Librarian

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In Memorium

Alfred D. (A.D.) Hagle

Alfred D. (A.D.) Hagle, retired NLS public resources officer, died on May 25, 2011. He was 90.

A federal employee for 43 years—of which 31 were served at the Library of Congress (LC)—Hagle was promoted in 1959 from his position as assistant section head at the LC Loan Division to head of the Reference and Circulation Section at the Division for the Blind, which later became NLS.

He was passionate about increasing blind people's access to reading materials and is credited with expanding the list of acceptable postage-free matter for the blind through ideas he proposed at the 1978 International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) meeting. At the time, only books and periodicals were accepted as free matter; talking-book equipment, large-print books, and large-print magazines were excluded.

As chair of the IFLA Postal Subcommittee, Hagle developed the highly visible orange and black international BLINDPOST label that helps speed mail to blind individuals globally. In addition to his work with IFLA, Hagle wrote articles for the American Library Association (ALA) World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services and for the Academic Press's series on Advances in Librarianship.

Hagle also proposed ALA's Francis Joseph Campbell Award, which is given every year to a librarian providing outstanding service to blind and physically handicapped readers. He ensured that a weighty medal accompanied the formal citation to indicate the significance of the prize. According to Frank Kurt Cylke, former NLS director, Hagle declined consideration for the award, stating that he found it inappropriate to accept an accolade that he had conceived.

Hagle, who retired from NLS in March 1990, acquired a reputation for his far-ranging and in-depth knowledge of library and information services for blind and physically handicapped individuals. Because of his expertise, Hagle was designated the NLS public resources officer and served as the agency's postal liaison. His skills as an effective negotiator and agency representative were also noted: LC labor relations officer Donald Curran appointed Hagle to the Labor-Management and Health and Safety Committee to represent LC management in committee dealings with the AFSCME local 2910 union from 1981 to 1983.

Cylke recalled that Hagle "was an outstanding employee and deeply dedicated to those he served." NLS colleague Nick Nobbe recollected that "A.D. was highly knowledgeable—knew everything about everything. He had a knack for tackling the difficult jobs and handling them with a smile."

Hagle is survived by his wife Nina, son Andrew, daughter-in-law Kathy, and grandsons Alex and Matthew.

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Ten-Squared Talking-Book Club: an opportunity for libraries to honor their oldest patrons

Ten-Squared logo

The NLS Ten-Squared Talking-Book Club, launched in October 2004, continues to honor patrons who have reached their tenth decade of life. Since the club's inception, more than 450 centenarians have been recognized, from World War I veteran
Ernest Pusey of Florida to Dorothy Bryant, who helped establish the Iowa Library for the Blind and served as one of its first employees before becoming a patron much later in life.

The club's members are bound together by a love of reading—and a deep appreciation for the work of their network libraries. But reading is far from their only activity, and not all of their accomplishments are decades past. Member Faith Callahan of Washington state helped wage a campaign to save her town's public pool, where the 105-year-old swims every week.

Fellow Washington state resident Maud Lepley applied for her first passport at age 98, two years before joining the Ten-Squared Club, so she could embark on a long-dreamed-of series of trips to Europe.

Shellie Zeigler Mississippi BPH and Thelma Garner
Shellie Zeigler, director of Blind & Physically
Handicapped Library Services for the Mississippi
Library Commission, presents Thelma Garner
with her membership certificate on April 5, 2011.

Libraries that have patrons approaching—or past—their hundredth birthday may submit names through the form at NLS then sends the library certificates, signed letters of recognition, and membership pins that can be presented to patrons during a special event hosted by the library. Libraries may send their stories and photos from their Ten-Squared Club induction events for posting on the NLS website. The induction package may also be mailed to those centenarians who are unable to appear in person.

For more information, contact Claire Rojstaczer at [email protected].

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NLS Talking Rooms now available online in MP3, text, and HTML

The award-winning brochure Talking Rooms: Walking through History at the National Library Service, conceived and written by NLS executive assistant to the director Erica Vaughns in 2009,  is now available online in three formats—audio (MP3), text, and HTML.

The MP3 version, recorded in the NLS studio by narrator Don Hagen, is the first audio piece to be featured on the NLS public website. "A brochure that provides a history of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped program and building should be accessible," said Vaughns. "By placing it in audio, text, and HTML formats on the home page of the website, we give everyone who has access to the Internet the opportunity to learn about our service." The publication is also available in braille, in print, and on the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD).

Image of talking rooms web page

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