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Program Gives the Blind Access to Reading

National Library Service Expands, Transforms Over 80-Year History

Courtesy National Library Service, Library of Congress
A National Library Service patron uses a machine to listen to reading material in the 1970s.

By Erin Mershon

When Thomas Galante was 8 years old, he had to rely on his parents to get books from the local library and read them to him. “I always thought, wouldn’t it be great to have my own books to read?” he said.

But Galante is blind. Then he discovered the Library of Congress’ National Library Service, a program that delivers free reading material, such as audio and Braille books, to patrons nationwide who are blind or have some other physical disability.

Over the next 50 years, Galante, vice president for human resources for the Bank of New York Mellon, devoured countless books.

“When I first started using the program, the recordings were done on records and the machines ran on vacuum tubes,” Galante said. “They were heavy wooden things. Then they moved to cassettes, and what a boon that was.”

The NLS program celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. More than 320,000 books and 70 current magazines are available, and 113 regional libraries participate in the program, interacting with patrons and facilitating the mailings. 

“It’s to ensure those people have access to reading in the same way that any American citizen would have access to reading,” said Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for library services at the Library of Congress. “What they do is fabulous.”

Throughout its history, the program has undergone countless technological changes, rotating through various types of records before switching to cassette tapes in 1969. Just this year it began offering digital services to its patrons.

When it was established in 1931, however, the program only provided Braille material to patrons. In 1933, the first talking book — Woodrow Wilson’s biography of George Washington — was recorded for the program. The first order also included the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Washington’s Farewell Address, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and several titles by William Shakespeare. Those first titles were recorded onto 12-inch, 33-1/3 rpm records. A book of just 60,000 words required at least eight discs.

The program was expanded in 1952 to include offerings for children and again in 1966 to include items for individuals with other physical impairments preventing regular reading. Now, more than 823,000 patrons use the service. Last year, the average audio book reader downloaded or borrowed 40 recorded books and magazines a year. Braille readers averaged 22 books and magazines that year.

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