By Lina Dutky
At the National Conference of Librarians Serving Blind and Physically Handicapped Individuals last April in San Francisco, NLS Director Karen Keninger presented a commendation to a California software engineer named Kirk Saathoff.
It wasn’t until eight months later that NLS patrons were introduced to Saathoff’s work: BARD Express, a Windows-based application that simplifies transferring talking books and magazines from BARD, the Braille and Audio Reading Download service, to a cartridge or USB drive.
Patrons greeted BARD Express enthusiastically. “I've been playing all night with the BARD Express software, and boy! You all have done a bang-up killer job at this thing!” one wrote. “This is absolutely awesome!”
“It is well-written, performs its functions efficiently, and makes using BARD even simpler than it already was,” another patron wrote.
So who is Kirk Saathoff and how did he come to develop BARD Express—and donate it to the Library of Congress?
Saathoff is an old friend of NLS automation officer Mike Martys; both are Illinois natives who went to college in Chicago, and they started work on the same day at General Electric (GE) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, more than 30 years ago. Saathoff’s original job at GE was developing software and firmware for torpedo systems for Trident II submarines.
Saathoff’s wife Karen Harshfield, also a software engineer, has a genetic eye condition known as rod-cone dystrophy. She started reading cassette books from NLS in 1992. Sometimes the tape in the cassettes would get twisted and Saathoff would have to reel it out and re-spool it. As his wife transitioned to digital talking books, he helped load titles into her Book Port, a digital book player manufactured by the American Printing House for the Blind. Harshfield used that player so much that she wore the labels off the buttons.
Harshfield was an early user of BARD. Then, about six years ago, the couple’s teenage son Peter also started to lose his vision because of rod-cone dystrophy. Peter began using the BARD Mobile app for iOS devices after it was introduced in 2013.
So Saathoff was well aware of the needs of BARD users when Martys told him that NLS was looking for a way to make it easier to find, download, and transfer books from BARD to a cartridge.
“I don’t have any formal UI (user interface) training,” Saathoff said. “But I’m kind of a simpleton, so I try to make stuff that’s easy for me to use.”
After Saathoff developed a prototype of BARD Express, the software was field- tested by BARD operations coordinator Don Olson and NLS education and training specialist Paula Bahmani at network libraries in Alexandria and Fairfax County, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. NLS tested the software with multiple users and library staff to gain their perspectives on the types of menus and features they wanted to see and to understand their issues with using BARD.
“We wanted to understand the needs of the users and the staff who work with them every day,” Olson said. “We asked them, ‘Which menus make more sense? What kind of features do you want? What difficulties are you having with BARD?’”
At Olson’s request, Saathoff designed BARD Express to give screen readers more information than what is displayed for sighted users. To improve its accessibility, BARD Express connects to hidden information that’s not onscreen.
In addition to field testing, NLS put the software through its paces with 50 beta testers—mostly patrons, but some network library staff, too—who had varying levels of skill with technology and a range of disabilities.
The end result is that BARD Express is a product that was created by patrons and friends of NLS for NLS patrons—inspiring thank-yous not only from Keninger, NLS, and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, but from patrons as well. As one wrote to NLS, “I’m very grateful and appreciative to BARD Express’s author for the kindness and generosity that inspired his donation to NLS for the benefit of others.”
By Paula Bahmani
BARD reached another milestone on January 3 when the Indiana Braille and Talking Book Library uploaded and posted the site’s 3,000th network-produced audio title, The Madison Regatta: Hydroplane Racing in Small-Town Indiana (DBC11014), by Fred Farley and Ron Harsin. It came just nine months after the 2,000th network-produced book was posted last April.
The Madison Regatta covers the long history of motorboat racing in Madison, Indiana, a small town on the Ohio River that hosts the regatta annually. The book highlights the most successful community-owned hydroplane in the world, the Miss Madison.
“With Indiana, and Indianapolis in particular, viewing itself as the racing capital of the world, this title on hydroplane racing would seem to be a natural fit for our studio to produce,” said Indiana Voices director Linden Coffman. “We have a number of other audiobooks in our collection that pertain to racing, such as some mystery and suspense titles set at the Indy 500 and a biography about Major Taylor, a world- famous African American cyclist, that are available on BARD,” he added.
Indiana Voices is part of the Indiana Braille and Talking Book Library, a branch of the Indiana State Library. The organization records state-related titles and relies solely on volunteers to narrate and monitor audio materials for circulation. “I think our biggest challenge is getting titles turned around in a timely manner,” Coffman said. “I am always searching for ways to recruit more volunteers to speed up the process to get books out to our patrons.”
Indiana Voices has contributed nearly 50 titles to BARD—quite a feat for a small operation running mainly on volunteers. Coffman’s goal when he started the position with Indiana Voices in 2014 was to upload all the titles he worked on. Some of the other titles he has added to BARD include Indiana-born Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night (DBC08156), a fictional spy story; The Harvester (DBC04916), a fictional romance; and Boom, Baby: My Basketball Life in Indiana (DBC04917), a sports biography about Bobby “Slick” Leonard.
“I’m very happy that our program here has been able to make a contribution to the growth of the BARD collection,” he said.
Indiana is among 31 network libraries and one machine-lending agency that have been certified to add locally produced audio titles to BARD.
By Mark Layman
The former warehouse in Northwest Washington, D.C., that NLS has called home since the mid-1960s is getting a facelift.
It will be the first time in four decades that significant renovations have been done to the leased building at 1291 Taylor Street N.W., about five miles from the Library of Congress (LC) campus on Capitol Hill.
“We want our Taylor Street staff to have as safe and modern a workplace as their Library colleagues on Capitol Hill,” Director Karen Keninger said. “And we want our facility to make a better impression on the visitors who come to NLS from all over the world to learn about our program.”
Renovations are scheduled to begin in May and last for six months. During that time, more than 40 NLS employees will relocate to the LC’s Madison and Adams buildings. The other seventy or so employees—mostly those directly involved in the book-production pipeline, such as the Collection Development, Production Control, and Quality Assurance sections—will work in parts of the Taylor Street building that aren’t being renovated. The basement recording studio, engineering labs, and loading dock won’t be largely affected by the renovation.
Besides new furniture and conference areas and a more-welcoming lobby, the building will get much-needed electrical upgrades. Metal detectors also will be installed at the entrances, bringing security up to par with the LC’s Capitol Hill buildings.
“The renovation will improve the building’s layout and make workflow more efficient,” Keninger said. “There will be some inconveniences, but the payoff is that our staff will come back to a much nicer, safer, and more secure facility.”
Poet, writer, educator, and disability activist Stephen Kuusisto (left) visited NLS in February before speaking at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Washington, D.C. He talked with Stephen Prine, deputy chief of the Network Division, and enjoyed a tour of the building. Kuusisto, who has retinopathy, has been an NLS patron since he was eight. Learn more about Kuusisto at his website, Planet of the Blind, at stephenkuusisto.com .
By Claire Rojstaczer
The NLS Music Section is known for having the world’s largest collection of braille musical scores—and for its cutting-edge digitization program, which Music staff members have written about extensively on the NLS Music Notes blog (blogs.loc.gov/nls-music-notes/). That’s why former section head John Hanson wasn’t surprised to get a call from Jeff Baugher of the Alternate Text Production Center (ATPC) last year asking if NLS could offer a home to several thousand braille musical scores.
ATPC, a publicly funded organization that creates alternate media products for use by California community college students with visual or reading disabilities, originally received the collection as a donation from the Southern California Conservatory of Music (SCCM). “When SCCM donated them to us, we made a promise to digitize them,” Baugher explained. “We started, but it was very slow going. We just didn’t have the resources.”
“I have a hard time saying no to hardcopy braille music, so I told him, ‘Sure! Send it along!’”—John Hanson
When Baugher stumbled on John Hanson’s 2014 blog post “Digitizing Braille Music—How We Do It,” he thought NLS might be the answer.
“I have a hard time saying no to hardcopy braille music,” Hanson said, “so I told him, ‘Sure! Send it along!’” Baugher did, shipping four pallets full of braille scores across the country.
Pieces in the collection range from international folksongs to major works by classical European composers, and from art songs to instructional materials. “It reinforces the already strong braille music collection at NLS,” said NLS music specialist Mary Dell Jenkins.
SCCM began collecting the material in 1993, when its Braille Music Division was founded, as a reference collection for its students. Former SCCM music specialist Richard Taesch, who now runs the Music Education Network for the Visually Impaired, recalls there being nearly 6,000 braille titles in the collection. “They were often donated in bulk by educators and libraries, many on the recommendation of the late Bettye Krolick,” author of the Dictionary of Braille Music Signs, Taesch said. The material included the personal collections of conductor John de Francesco, vocalist and educator Carlton Eldridge, jazz pianist Donald Heitler, and educator Janet Cross, as well as a substantial donation from the American Printing House for the Blind. The bulk of the collection passed to ATPC when SCCM closed in 2013.
The NLS Music Section is still assessing the donation and determining which pieces should be digitized and which duplicate material already in the NLS collection. (Some of the material donated by ATPC, including Popular Music Lead Sheets 1–55, originated with NLS and has now come full circle.)
“The grand plan,” said Hanson, who retired from NLS last fall, “was to digitize it after we finish scanning the NLS collection scores and the material donated by [music publisher] Howe Press.” The process will take time. But all involved hope the collection has finally found a permanent home.
Photo: Two of the donated braille music scores: the cover of Miniatures for the Piano by Berenice Benson Bentley (left) and a page from Lyric Pieces for Pianoforte, Op. 12, by Edvard Grieg.
Howe Press donation added “some real jewels” to the catalog
The ATPC’s collection isn’t the only big donation the NLS Music Section has received in recent years.
In the mid-2000s, Perkins School for the Blind gave NLS thousands of braille scores produced by the school’s Howe Press. “I was interested because when Howe Press was in its heyday—from the 1920s to the 1960s or later—it was the largest and most consistent producer of braille music,” retired Music Section head John Hanson said. “I knew it was a big collection and a good collection—and it was free.”
NLS already had many of the scores in the Howe collection—but it’s good to have duplicates, because braille scores are easily damaged, and sometimes patrons are slow to return a favorite score. In addition, “there were some real jewels that came with that donation, including some transcriptions that Howe had never published,” Hanson said.
Howe Press began producing braille materials in the 1800s and also developed and sold mechanical braille writers—including the iconic Perkins Brailler—and other school material.
Read more about the Howe Press collection in this post on the Music Section blog: http://blogs.loc.gov/nls-music-notes/2014/07/selections-from-howe-press/.
By Gabrielle Barnes
Three NLS section heads with nearly 80 years of combined service—Robert Axtell, Jane Caulton, and John Hanson—retired late last year.
Axtell began his career working for a company that provided cataloging services to area libraries, including the National Library of Medicine and the Veterans Administration. In 1982, that company began cataloging an old braille book collection at NLS. Axtell took on more NLS contracts, cataloging gift braille materials and the beginnings of what is now the Special Foreign Language collection.
In 1989, Axtell left the contractor’s world and became a permanent figure at NLS as head of the Bibliographic Control Section. Foremost among his achievements was the conversion of the NLS catalog records from a somewhat idiosyncratic format to the more widely used MARC21 format in 1999. That enhanced NLS’s ability to import and export records, improved productivity, and enhanced the catalog’s value to patrons.
Caulton was a key player in the Publications and Media Section (PMS) for 28 years. As a writer-editor early in her career, she was responsible for the NLS exhibit program—just one of many projects she took on over the years that helped shape the public image of NLS.
Caulton became the PMS section head in 2006, overseeing the creation of more than 100 publications in a variety of formats each year. Under her leadership, the PMS staff literally changed the face of NLS by reinventing the agency’s brand identity, which included a new logo and an updated look for many of its publications. Caulton also oversaw TV, radio, print, and social media campaigns to spread the word about NLS.
Hanson, who had been a library director and a professor, began his NLS career as a contractor in 2001 and was quickly hired as temporary head of the Music Section. Almost two years later, he became the permanent head of the section.
Under Hanson’s leadership, the Music Section began the ongoing task of digitizing the world’s largest braille music collection. Hanson also brokered the donation of several large braille music collections to NLS, as detailed in stories on pages 5 and 6.
Hanson’s strong work ethic was evident particularly in his mode of transportation: he biked his seven-plus-mile commute to the office even in below-freezing temperatures.
“We wish John, Bob, and Jane well as they enjoy some free time and take on new challenges in retirement,” Keninger said. “They should be proud of their many contributions to the braille and talking-book program.”
Have you made plans yet to attend one of the NLS network regional conferences this spring?
The Western-Southern Regional Conference takes place May 9–11 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In addition to sessions on duplication-on-demand and rating books, the conference will feature a talk by author James McGrath Morris, whose works include Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press, which was awarded the Benjamin Hooks National Book Prize, and Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power, which Booklist named one of the best biographies of 2010. Before becoming a full-time writer, Morris spent a decade as a journalist, a decade working in the book and magazine business, and a decade as a high school teacher.
Find more information online at https://nlsjointconference.wordpress.com .
The Midlands/Northern Regional Conference takes place June 6–8 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. One of the featured presenters will be Michael Furlough, executive director of the HathiTrust, a partnership of academic and research institutions that offers a collection of millions of digital books. Carrie Banks of the Inclusive Services Program (formerly the Child's Place for Children with Special Needs) at the Brooklyn Public Library will also speak. There will be sessions on braille and early literacy, staff training, standards revisions, and other topics.
Find more information online at https://lbphwiki.aadl.org/2017_northern_midlands_conference .