Karen Keninger remembers fondly the carefully wrapped packages of braille books delivered to the doorstep of her childhood home in Vinton, Iowa, from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
“It was like Christmas,” recalls Keninger, who was diagnosed with an eye disease at 16 months old. By the age of 7, her vision had deteriorated to the point where she lost the ability to read large-print books. “I would get excited every time the mail came because I loved reading,” she said.
Keninger now serves as director of the NLS, using her perspective as a patron of the Library of Congress service to improve the program’s mission to deliver reading materials to more than 500,000 citizens with low vision, blindness or a physical disability that makes reading regular print difficult. Her March 2012 appointment by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington marked the first time a visually impaired person took the helm of the program, which was established by Congress in 1931.
Under her leadership, the NLS is rolling out a new app through the iTunes App Store that gives patrons nearly instantaneous access to more than 50,000 books, magazines and musical scores in audio and braille formats. The Braille and Audio Reading Download app — BARD for short — offers children’s books, teen fiction, mystery and romance novels, in addition to classic literature and works of nonfiction.
Gone are the days of waiting patiently by the mailbox. “Now they can use a mainstream device — iPhone, iPad or iPod — to download the book they want today and have it ready within five minutes,” Keninger told CQ Roll Call. Since the app became available on Sept. 20, more than 3,000 eligible users have downloaded it.
“It’s a library in your pocket,” Keninger said.
The app also helps the NLS tighten its belt at a time when the legislative branch is operating under increased budget strains. Producing a download costs much less than converting reading material to an audio cartridge or a hard-copy braille book, then mailing out copies to the regional library to be delivered to patrons.
“We don’t have to make a physical copy of the book, so that’s less expensive,” Keninger said. “Network libraries don’t have to handle it and neither does the post office.”
She also predicts that larger cost savings might be possible down the road, as more people adapt to the technology and use their own equipment to access NLS materials.
“We have traditionally provided a talking book machine to each of our patrons that costs about $160,” Keninger said. “For each time someone says, ‘I don’t need one of those talking book machines because I would now prefer to use my iPhone,’ NLS isn’t providing the machine and network libraries aren’t providing support services for the machine.”