Serving the Vision Impaired

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"Blind People Read Too."

Article and photos by Mary Wise, catalog librarian at Central Washington University Library
Originally appeared in ALKI, journal of the Washington Library Association, December 2007 issue


Assistant Director Rosemary Adamski points at the map showing the location of this past summer’s reading program members

Recently, I visited the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library ( in Seattle, where the books talk.

Library director Gloria Leonard filled me in on the history of this special library. It opened around 1906 at the Seattle Public Library, then located on Fourth Avenue. As the story goes, a library employee wanted to supply Braille materials to the entire state, and by 1907 about a hundred Braille-embossed books were circulating by mail.

Then, in 1931, the Pratt-Smoot Act established the National Library Service (NLS) within the U.S. Library of Congress, and nineteen libraries across the country – including Seattle Public – signed up to distribute Braille materials. Today, there are fifty-seven regional libraries across the United States.

The Washington Talking Book & Braille Library serves about 15,000 people, with a collection of more than 80,000 titles, including Braille, audio, and large-print books. Materials are housed in the warehouse adjacent to the library, now located on Ninth Avenue.

In Washington state, only about 15 percent of those who are eligible take advantage of the library’s services, says Leonard. She attributes the low use to the stigma attached to blindness and failing eyesight. But she believes more people would use the library if they knew about it, and relies on word of mouth to reach potential patrons. In addition to setting policy, the fifteen members of the library’s Patron Advisory Council work to get word out about available services.


Robin Rousu and Wes Derby work in Readers’ Services.

Since the library is identified with the Seattle Public Library, some people think they have to live in the city to receive services. In reality, anyone who is legally blind, cannot see well, is unable to hold a book, or has a reading disability can use the library, which is served by about twenty-one employees and 400 volunteers. The staff includes one full-time and one part-time librarian. Volunteers help record books on audiotapes, key books on a Braille machine, and ship out some 2,000 items a day. Throughout the library large signs proclaim the value of volunteers. Says Leonard, the library could not function without them.

The library relies on the NLS for programming. One of the most successful programs is called 102 (ten squared). For the past three years, the program has saluted centenarians with an annual tea party to celebrate a lifetime of reading. The oldest participant, a 108-year-old woman, sat in her wheelchair in front of the state Capitol last March holding a sign that said, "Blind people read too."


This cart holds the thirteen binders of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in Braille (left) and in tape form (little box on right).

At the other end of the age spectrum, another program included a children’s sleepover in the library, organized by Kathryn Pierce, a youth services librarian. The sleepover was tied to the Braille Challenge, a national reading and writing contest held in Seattle last February. The contest started early in the morning and the staff was concerned that children traveling from all over the state might not make it on time. The sleepover allowed participants and their parents to arrive the day before and avoid hotel expenses.

Pierce also organized the summer reading program, which included two big parties, one at the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library, and one at a Kennewick library. Next year she plans to hold a summer reading program at a hospital.

Services to the elderly are an important part of what the library does. Many of the people the library serves are in the 65- to 80-year-old range, and learning to live with reduced vision or blindness. Many of them lack computer access and skills. In 2003, the NLS conducted a nationwide usage survey. The table below summarizes the generation gap.

Age Category




85 +

Any Computer Use





Any Internet Use





Home Dial-up Connection





Home High-speed Connection





Baby boomers may be the first computer-literate generation. That means more options for finding materials will be available to them as they age. Special radios allow users to listen to the Internet. Today’s talking book machines use something that looks like standard audiotape cassettes, but a new book reader expected to debut soon will be about half the size and use digital cards (flash memory). While one book might take as many as seven audiotapes; the digital machines hold an entire book on one thin card, about the size of a credit card. The new machines will be more durable, easier to use, and include a bookmark feature.1

At the library, patrons who have trouble using the phone and ordering from a catalog can set up a subject profile, so that the staff can suggest materials for them. The go-to people for reader’s advisory are Wes Derby and Alan Bentson, who are both employees and patrons of the library. Derby spends most of his day talking to patrons about where to find materials; using the online catalog; or downloading Braille books. If a requested book is not in the system and can’t be found anywhere else on tape, it can be converted to Braille locally, or sent on to NLS.

Derby showed me a device called a Pack Me, with a Braille display, on which he currently has about five books stored. As a patron, he can download as many books as he wants from NLS, which is more convenient than waiting for talking books to be delivered by mail. On vacations, he can take the small Braille reader instead of a stack of books.

Derby also has a device that looks like a small laptop keyboard without a screen. At the bottom of the keyboard is a refreshable Braille display, which consists of a row of holes. Dots are raised through the holes to display Braille letters, one row at a time. This device can use the Braille display, or voice alone. It holds a little more than a Personal Digital Assistant, but functions as sort of a screen-less laptop.

A Braille typing machine sits in the Phyllis O. Orrico Children’s Reading Room

Publishers are just now beginning to realize that the sight-impaired are a significant market for large-print books. Robin Rousu handles adult services at the library, which has more than 10,000 large-print volumes. Like most of the library’s materials, these books circulate through the mail. Public libraries borrow a few at a time and make them available to their patrons. There are also large-print materials for children and young adults, which most public libraries don’t have. Publishers choose to produce mostly fiction in large print, but at the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library, patrons also need nonfiction materials, says Rousu. Audiobooks offer a wider selection of both nonfiction and fiction. The library also serves students who need materials for school. Bentson enjoys exposing children to the library for the first time. Unlike at a large public library, the staff knows most of the patrons. And unlike many public libraries, the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library keeps a record of what patrons check out. That way staff are better able to anticipate which materials the patrons will want in the future.

The library’s own future lies with the Washington State Library, under Secretary of State Sam Reed. Scheduled for completion by the end of June, the library is in the middle of a transition from the Seattle Public Library. According to Leonard, the Seattle Public Library believes this statewide function is more appropriately handled by the state. In addition, the costs of operating the library are rising, while the budget is not.

As a state run organization, there may be more opportunities for partnerships, says Leonard. That will allow the library to reassess its services and possibly provide new ones. The library will also be looking for new outreach opportunities. With the administrative change, the library’s employees will have to decide whether to remain with the Seattle Public Library and transfer to another site, or to stay with the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library and become Washington state employees. The Office of the Secretary of State and the City of Seattle have agreed that the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library will remain at its current location for a minimum of five years.

What is certain is that the library’s mission will stay the same. If you know someone in need of services, please contact the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library at (206) 615-0400, or toll free at (800) 542-0866. More information is available on the library’s Web site at


1 National Library Service: That All May Read, NLS/BPH Digital Talking Book Player and Cartridge.