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NLS Press Release

National Library Service Commemorates 75 Years of Pioneering Service to Blind and Physically Handicapped Readers

For Immediate Release:
December 22, 2006
Contact: Jane Caulton
(202) 707-0521 or [email protected]

National Library Service Commemorates 75 Years of Pioneering Service to Blind and Physically Handicapped Readers

Free library service celebrates long history and bright future in keeping patrons engaged in literature and connected to the world around them

WASHINGTON, DC—This month, as the nation reflects on the past year and looks toward the future, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, is commemorating 75 years of providing free library service to people who cannot see standard print or who have problems handling print materials. Established in 1931 by the Pratt-Smoot Act, NLS provides free reading materials in braille and on audiocassette, as well as audio playback equipment to eligible enrollees of all ages. As NLS celebrates its 75th year of ensuring that all may read, the program continues its tradition of innovation and service. In 2008, a revolutionary transformation will occur when NLS launches the digital talking-book system, harnessing the latest technology to enhance the way patrons stay connected to the written word and the world at large.

"This is a monumental milestone in NLS history," says Frank Kurt Cylke, NLS director. "For the past 75 years, we have remained committed to meeting the unique needs of blind and physically handicapped readers. As we enter the digital future, NLS will continue to explore ways to enhance the reading experience of our patrons, thereby improving the quality of their lives."

A long history of keeping people connected

Known today as the talking-book program, NLS was born on March 31, 1931, when President Herbert Hoover signed the Pratt-Smoot Act into law, authorizing the Library of Congress to provide embossed books for blind people in the United States and its territories. The legislation was the outgrowth of efforts dating back to the nineteenth century to foster literacy in the blind community. While the Library of Congress had offered an in-house collection of braille materials since 1897, it wasn’t until President Herbert Hoover signed the Pratt-Smoot Act into law that such materials became accessible to blind readers on a national level.

It became apparent early on that the braille collection did not meet the needs of older patrons who lacked the tactile sensitivity to learn braille. In 1934, laying the foundation for a service that puts patrons needs first, Congress supplemented the original legislation with additional funding to produce books on phonograph records—the first audiobooks. Thus the talking-book program was born. Always exploring the technological horizons for new methods of improving service to readers, NLS made cassette books and special playback machines available to patrons in 1969.

When Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Ruth Pratt introduced the legislation that created this special library service in 1931, they could hardly have envisioned the phenomenon spawned by their efforts. Today, NLS provides services to more than 700,000 avid readers. The NLS staff has grown from one professional staffer in 1931 to a staff of more than 100 individuals. The 19 affiliate libraries have expanded to a national network of 132 cooperating libraries found throughout the United States and in its territories. Moreover, the NLS collection has increased from a mere 15 book titles to a collection of more than 400,000, including the latest bestsellers, circulating 24 million copies annually. In addition, NLS provides music materials in braille, recorded, and large-print formats; and offers readers a selection of braille and recorded magazine subscriptions.

Moving into the digital future

The 75th anniversary of NLS ushers in a new era for the talking-book program. Building on its past tradition of implementing cutting-edge technologies to enhance user-friendlessness, NLS is in the midst of converting its analog-based system to a digital system, and developing new digitally based talking books and playback machines.

The digital talking-book system will greatly enrich the user reading experience through improved audio quality, navigation features, accessibility, portability, and durability. NLS expects to begin distributing the digital talking books and players to patrons in 2008.

Users play a key role in shaping NLS’s digital future. In partnership with the National Federation of the Blind, NLS is engaging a broad range of blind and physically handicapped consumers in a series of rigorous product tests to ensure that the medium and player are functional and accessible to readers of diverse ages and skill levels.

"It’s been wonderful to be part of this process," says NFB spokesperson Marc Maurer. "Throughout its history, NLS has proven itself a forward-thinking organization and a leader in developing as well as implementing assistive technologies to improve service to its patrons."

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, administers the talking-book program, a free library service available to U.S. residents or American citizens living abroad whose low vision, blindness, or physical handicap makes reading a standard printed page difficult. Through its national network of regional libraries, NLS mails books and magazines on cassette and in braille, as well as audio equipment, directly to enrollees at no cost. Further information on eligibility requirements and enrollment procedures for the program is available at www.loc.gov/nls or 1-888-NLS-READ (1-888-657-7323).

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Posted on 2011-01-10