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NLS: That All May Read

Alternatives for Future Operations of the Books for the Blind Program

Section 1 - Introduction

1.1 Report Objectives

This report presents the combined results of two separate studies that were conducted during 2010. The first was performed by Ducrest Associates under Order Number LCNLS10E0008 for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress (LC), and the second was performed by the NLS Network Division.  The objective of both studies was to develop an initial planning document for NLS that outlines how the Books for the Blind Program could possibly evolve in the future taking into account the entire system, including those individuals being served and their needs, functional areas of program operations, major service providers and their roles, and current and future technologies and their potential impact.

NLS is planning for possible short- and long-range operations even as the transition to the new digital system consisting of digital audiobooks (DBs) and digital talking-book machines (DTBMs) is fully underway, and needs to initially identify and subsequently evaluate alternative ways in which the system could potentially evolve in the future.  This report identifies alternatives that NLS may choose to implement to change how it provides support to its network of cooperating libraries and program users, and also suggests possible changes to the configuration and activities of the cooperating network of 113 libraries.

The aforementioned changes will be driven largely by advances in technology and how these advances can be used to make program users more independent and give them more control in how and where they access library services. At the same time, the agencies administering the network of libraries serving blind and physically handicapped individuals have lost funding because of the 2008 downturn in the economy, and many are looking for ways to reduce costs at both the state and local levels.  Formulating a plan for future operations that considers both the advantages of the digital transition and the disadvantages of the economic downturn, and continues to provide equitable library service to program users, is necessary but challenging.

While this report identifies alternatives, these are not necessarily inclusive of all possibilities and it is doubtless that others exist. Some of the alternatives offered deviate from the ways in which services to program users have been traditionally provided.  However, while the pros and cons of these alternatives are cited where applicable, further analysis is required to determine the best recommendations for implementation.

1.2 Background of the Books for the Blind Program

Since 1931 LC has been federally mandated to provide a free library service to resident sof the United States and U.S. citizens living abroad who are unable to read conventional print because of blindness or a visual impairment. In 1952 the mandate was expanded to include children, in 1962 to provide music materials, and in 1967 for persons with physical handicaps. Since its inception, NLS has contracted for the production of books, first in braille, and later also in audio formats as well.  NLS made these books, and beginning in the late 1940s, playback equipment (at that time record players) available to a network of cooperating libraries that provided the actual day-to-day service to eligible users.

From 19 regional libraries (RLs) in 1931, the network expanded to 26 RLs in 1934 and remained stable through World War II. A second growth of the network commenced in 1950 with the establishment of an RL in Florida.  This growth of RLs continued through 1976 with the establishment of RLs in Alaska and Vermont.  At this point there were 56 regional libraries. Five states—California, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—had two regional libraries each and there were RLs in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.  Two states, North Dakota and Wyoming, did not have Regional Libraries but were served by South Dakota and Utah, respectively.  In 1995 the North Dakota State Library established an RL, so currently only the state of Wyoming remains without an RL.  However, in 2009 the RL serving southern Ohio was closed, reducing the total number of RLs to 56 once again.

In 1969 the first subregional library (SRL) was established.  The subregional concept expanded to a total of 104 by the mid-1980s.  SRL growth crested at that point and the number of SRLs then began to decline.  As of October 2010, there were only 57 SRLs. Most SRL closings have been caused by economic conditions at the state and local levels.

1.3 Current Major Considerations Regarding the Program

The expansions and consolidations cited above, in conjunction with the NLS transition from analog to digital technology, are changing the dynamics of the NLS cooperating network and these changes will continue to be driven by forces that are affecting society as a whole.  The transition from analog to digital technology has raised a number of issues relating to the acquisition (and distribution in a timely manner) of digital playback equipment and digital books.

While the rate of DTBMs and DBs being absorbed by the network has been calculated for each library, one question that arises is how much of the analog collection should be retained and for how long.  These questions are not being asked as much by the network libraries as much as by their administering agencies that see a potential increase in shelf space for other collections as the collections for blind and physically handicapped individuals are reduced.  Against this background there are economic conditions at the state and local levels are causing revenues to decline across the country, which in turn results in fewer resources—financial and staffing—for network libraries.

Another risk to the Books for the Blind Program is the changing role of public libraries in our society.  At a time when more and more individuals simply download frm the Internet the information they want to read or research via the Internet, public libraries are grappling with their role as service providers.  This affects the program since 55 of the 57 SRLs in existence are located within a public library or a public library system.

Other risks to the stability of the Books for the Blind Program, NLS, and its cooperating network as they exist today are listed below and are driven by changes in both society and technology:

  1. The future of the book in various formats must be researched and considered as having a possible impact on the program.
  2. Libraries influenced by declining funding may be reluctant to provide services for blind and physically handicapped users because of a misperception that there is no continuing need for specific services to this population.  In some areas the Internet and other technologies are closing the gap that once existed between sighted and blind readers access to reading material and information. This may result in little or no support for network libraries by their administering agencies.
  3. Changes in postal service.
  4. Funding for libraries of all types has been reduced due to the recent economic downturn   and may be slow coming back.
  5. Technology is chaing in a rapid and unpredictable manner, and this must be considered in relationship to possible offerings of the NLS.

1.4 Report Format

Section 2 of the report summarizes the major functions of the current program and the roles performed by the major participants in those functions.  This is followed in Section 3 with a discussion of several known technological changes that will potentially affect program operations in the future, along with the roles of several new potential participants in the program.  Section 4 presents undertakings that NLS should pursue in the near future in order to plan appropriately for the evolution of the system, while Section 5 presents major assumptions for use in the long-range, strategic-planning process. In Section 6, various alternatives for program operations as they could potentially evolve in the future are summarized for short-term, medium-term, and long-term planning horizons. Supporting documentation and a glossary are contained in the appendices.  Additional information on current program operations was obtained from archives of other projects previously performed for NLS and employee interviews (see appendix 3).

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Posted on 2011-03-14