Celebrating 80 years of talking books
“A wonderful expression of the best in America”
Like any octogenarian’s birthday party, the 80th anniversary celebration for the Library of Congress’s National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) on March 3 was a time for sharing memories.
College student Nicole Coby, author of Nickie’s Nook: Sharing the Journey, said she would “never forget the day I first read my own book in talking-book format . . . To have a well-known narrator I had been hearing for years read my book—it almost brought tears to my eyes.”
Tom Galante, a vice president at the Bank of New York Mellon Corporation in Pittsburgh, recalled listening to an NLS talking-book version of The Godfather in college and suddenly realizing his room was filled with other students drawn by the dynamic narration.
For Librarian of Congress James Billington the memories were of his grandmother, an NLS patron who lived to be almost 105. “She always said to me that talking books had added at least five, maybe ten years to her life,” he said. “These books were literally her lifeline.”
The three shared the podium with, among others, Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for Library Services; Robert Fistick, deputy director of NLS; Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind; and Tom Miller, executive director of the Blinded Veterans Association. More than 100 people—including NLS employees and retirees, library administrators, advocates, talking-book narrators, and patrons—gathered in the Members of Congress Room in the Jefferson Building to pay tribute to NLS, which Billington called “a wonderful expression of the best in America.”
Billington, Maurer, and Miller all praised the leadership of Kurt Cylke, who retired on February 28 after serving as NLS director for 38 years, nearly half of the program’s existence. “Leadership matters,” said Maurer. “When I was 22, Mr. Cylke was director, and he directed this program until last week. And this program is not a great service—it is the great service.”
NLS is “the envy of people around the world . . . the best library for the blind you can find anywhere. It is recognized everywhere; those who don’t have it fervently wished they did.”
-Marc Maurer, president, National Federation of the Blind
“Mr. Cylke has done a marvelous job over the years,” concurred Miller. “During his time there was never a loss in the quality of service. I speak for all blind and visually impaired veterans in expressing our gratitude.”
It was on March 3, 1931, that President Herbert Hoover signed the Pratt-Smoot Act, which established what is now the NLS braille and talking-book program. “This gathering commemorates the completion of eight decades of extraordinary effort by a dedicated and visionary company: the men and women who make our service the finest in the world in providing books in braille and recorded-sound formats to individuals who are blind, visually impaired, or otherwise unable to use conventional print books,” Fistick said.
“But this event is not just a birthday,” he continued. “It is also a celebration of the recent developments that have ushered us into the new era of alternative reading materials: digital books and magazines of unprecedented artistic and technical quality, ease of use, and dependability.”
Fistick traced the history of the digital program back to 1990 and an international conference in Dublin, Ireland, that was organized by Cylke. Those attending realized the days of cassettes—which NLS began using in 1970—were coming to an end, and a better talking-book technology was needed.
The new digital talking-book system, which NLS began distributing in 2009, is the result of 20 years’ work. “The digital player is significantly smaller and lighter than the cassette machine and easier to handle and control,” Fistick said. “The audio quality is superb, tone and speed are easily adjustable, the machine remembers your place in a book. And the cartridge is virtually indestructible.” Fistick also noted “with appropriate humility that the digital machine failure rate is .08 of 1 percent.”
Miller agreed. “It’s an incredible advancement,” he said. “Most anyone can operate it independently with ease”—especially older patrons who may not be comfortable with more complicated technology or who have limited dexterity.
Although NLS serves only U.S. residents and citizens living abroad, it has achieved an international reputation. Maurer said NLS is “the envy of people around the world . . . the best library for the blind you can find anywhere. It is recognized everywhere; those who don’t have it fervently wished they did.” Indeed, Billington recalled that the first question he was asked when he was interviewed on a Russian radio broadcast some years ago was “How can we get your service?”
Speakers also gave a nod to the Internet services: Web-Braille, which began in 1999, and BARD, the Braille and Audio Reading Download. One of the youngest NLS patrons, nine-year-old Brandon Pickrel (who said he is a fan of the Junie B. Jones series of children’s books), and his mother, Trudy Pickrel, president of Maryland Parents of Blind Children, got a quick lesson on how to use BARD during a demonstration of new NLS technology at the event.
NLS talking-book narrators were hailed as “rock stars.” “I order books frequently not by the title or the subject but by who the narrator is,” Miller said.
Narrators are “some of the most slept-with people in the United States,” Maurer joked, referring to many patrons’ habit of nodding off at night to a good book. “That goes a long way to explaining why I’m so tired all the time,” replied Martha Harmon Pardee, an award-winning narrator at Talking Book Publishers Inc. in Denver.
Perhaps the best summation of the role that NLS has played in so many lives during the past 80 years came from Michael Hingson, who recounts his escape from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, in his upcoming book Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero. Hingson got his first talking book from NLS—about dogs and cats—on long-playing records in 1958. Through braille and talking books, he said, “I began to have the opportunity to imagine in ways that I never did before—the kind of imagination one can only get from reading. I was given a gift by NLS that no one else could ever provide.”
NLS cooperating libraries across the country are hosting their own 80th Anniversary celebrations throughout the year. Several such events are described below.
California. Henry Chang, director of the Braille Institute Library in Los Angeles, honored longtime patron and volunteer Delphine Castle during the library’s anniversary celebration on March 3. Chang presented Castle with a framed certificate of appreciation for her 38 years of service. The event included a short video history of the library and a panel discussion on literacy in the blind and physically handicapped community.
Massachusetts. A visit from Boston Celtics players was a highlight of the Perkins Braille & Talking Book Library’s March 7 celebration in Watertown. As part of the NBA’s Read to Achieve program, team members joined students in reading from Marion Ripley’s Private and Confidential: A Story about Braille, a print/braille title, in the new Perkins Lower School gymnasium.
Minnesota. The Minnesota Braille and Talking Book Library received a proclamation from Governor Mark Dayton declaring March 3 Minnesota Talking Book Awareness Day.
Missouri. Secretary of State Robin Carnahan was the featured guest at the February 22 celebration at the Wolfner Library in Jefferson City. Library director Richard Smith recapped the history of the program, and patrons John Weidlich and Patti Shonlau described the positive impact Wolfner has on their lives and on the lives of other members of the blind community.
Vermont. The Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped received a proclamation from Governor Peter Schumlin declaring March 3 Talking Book Day in Vermont.
Washington. The Washington Talking Book & Braille Library in Seattle invited people to visit the library on March 3 dressed in 1930s-style garb, enjoy refreshments, and peruse articles and photos from the library’s history. The event included a brown-bag discussion of Pearl Buck’s 1931 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Good Earth. The library plans to put photos, historical highlights, and patrons’ stories on its website.
A Talking Book timeline
|1931||The Pratt-Smoot Act establishes a national library program administered by the Library of Congress—what is known today as NLS Talking Books.|
|1935||Twenty-seven book titles—including the four Christian Gospels, historical documents, and a variety of Shakespeare’s works—are available through the program on long-playing records. Records in various forms would continue to be used for more than 50 years.|
|1952||An amendment to the Pratt-Smoot Act makes children eligible for the service.|
|1962||The program broadens again, providing musical scores and other instructional music materials.|
|1966||Congress passes legislation extending free library service to physically handicapped readers.|
|1968||Audiocassettes are added to the talking-book program and eventually replace the open-reel tapes that had been used since 1959.|
|1978||The Library of Congress Division for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is renamed the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.|
|2009||Digital talking-book players start replacing analog cassette players.|
|2011||NLS celebrates its 80th anniversary with a readership of more than 850,000.|
|Then and now: NLS posters promoting the talking-book program’s cassette player in 2003 (above) and the new digital player in 2008 (right).|
Two years after starting production of talking books on digital cartridges, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has ended its analog cassette production.
After its establishment in 1931, NLS produced talking books on long-playing records. Later the program developed smaller, and lighter slower-speed discs. Talking books recorded on open-reel magnetic tape began circulating in 1959, and a decade later the first books on cassette tapes were produced.
Over the past 40 years, NLS has produced 57,245 talking-book titles on cassette tapes and distributed more than 49 million copies of those books to its national network of libraries. The last cassette book was shipped to cooperating libraries in January 2011: American Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes, which includes essays, anecdotes, and more from authors such as Walt Whitman, David Sedaris, and Anthony Bourdain. The cassettes were duplicated by the National Audio Company of Springfield, Missouri.
NLS distributed its first title on digital cartridge—Suze Orman’s 2009 Action Plan by the popular personal-finance advisor—in mid-2009. The NLS collection currently includes 2.5 million copies of more than 4,000 titles on digital cartridge. From now on, all new NLS audiobook titles will be distributed only on digital cartridges and via the Internet through the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) service, which currently offers more than 20,000 digital talking-book titles and 1,800 issues of digital magazines.
Ruth Scovill was appointed acting director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, at the end of February.
“I am pleased to announce that Ruth Scovill will serve as acting NLS director,” said Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for Library Services. “Ms. Scovill, who will also continue to serve as the director for technology policy in Library Services, has extensive experience in information technology and a knowledge and appreciation of NLS from her work with the digital talking-book system in 2008. Her efforts will help to ensure a smooth transition for NLS until a permanent director is appointed.”
Scovill follows longtime NLS director Kurt Cylke, who retired from federal service on February 28. Appointed to his position in 1973, Cylke was known for his dedicated stewardship and service to the nation’s libraries and blind and physically handicapped citizens. Under his leadership NLS earned a worldwide reputation for its commitment to quality, standards, and cooperation among special-format libraries.
Cylke guided the NLS conversion from analog to digital technology, which included the launch of the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) service in 2006 and digital talking books and players in 2009. During his four-decade tenure the program’s readership increased 155 percent and circulation grew to more than 27 million audio and braille books and magazines. In the first of two awards Cylke received from the American Library Association, the association cited NLS as a “model of library cooperation and networking on a national level.”
Scovill was the transition manager for the Library’s successful establishment of the Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia. Before coming to the Library, she was president of Cinesite, a visual effects company in the motion picture industry. Within her first year there, she doubled revenues and tripled output. Before leading Cinesite, Scovill was head of technology for DreamWorks Animation.
“I look forward to working at NLS and will strive to ensure a stable and seamless passage as NLS embarks on a nationwide search to find a permanent director,” said Scovill.
Florence A. Gibson, founder and narrator for Audio Book Contractors, Inc., died on January 7 at age 86.
Born in San Francisco in 1924, Mrs. Gibson earned a bachelor’s degree in dramatic literature from the University of California, Berkeley, and studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. She began her career as a professional actress with a six-month tour of Blithe Spirit for the U.S.O. at the end of World War II, then continued her career as a radio actress for the next several years. She married Carlos Gibson, a Peruvian diplomat, in 1947 and raised their four children.
Soon after her youngest child left for college, Mrs. Gibson auditioned for the NLS talking-book program and was hired as a narrator. She worked in the recording studio from 1974 to 1995. In 1983 she founded Audio Book Contractors, after having a soundproof studio built in the basement of her Washington, D.C., home. She hired local talent to help with the recording, monitoring, packaging, and distribution of unabridged classic books, first on cassette and later on compact discs, for the general public, schools, and libraries. She received three Parents’ Choice Awards and her work was cited on the American Library Association’s Notable Children’s Recordings list four times. At the time of her death, Mrs. Gibson was recording Les Misérables, which would have been the 1,134th book of her career.
Mrs. Gibson is survived by her three daughters, Nancy (Derry), Katherine, and Carrie Gibson, and three grandchildren, Chris Gibson, Elsa Gibson Braden, and Jaime Braden.
The State Library of Ohio has released a new poster in its Ohio READ series to celebrate the talking-book program. The poster features two students from the Ohio School for the Blind in their marching band uniforms listening to Amy Nathan’s Meet the Musicians: From Prodigy (or Not) to Pro on a digital cartridge using an advanced model of the NLS digital talking-book player. In the background is a framed photograph of the band marching in the 2010 Rose Bowl Parade.
Modeled after the successful American Library Association READ posters, the Ohio series features prominent figures from Ohio public life. Posters in this series are available for downloading at www.library.ohio.gov/Marketing/MediaCenter/READposter.