In the basement of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library headquarters in Fredericksburg, there is a minilibrary for very special patrons. This small but essential collection is tucked away in a corner of the lower level of the public library building. Occasionally someone who is looking for the law library or the Virginiana room wanders through the door expecting to see shelves of regular books. When they look up, their mouths usually drop open as they take in hundreds of shelves stacked high with thousands of blue boxes.
This is the Subregional Library for the Blind, also known as the Talking Book Library. The blue boxes contain audio-book cartridges that deliver the joy of reading to the blind, visually impaired, physically handicapped, or dyslexic. The Talking Book Library of books and magazines offers a future of hope to avid readers of all ages who are losing their eyesight, whether it be from illness, accident, or aging. Some patrons are only temporary, such as the little boy with a detached retina who had to remain extremely still, or the construction worker with two broken arms who listened to audio books while he recovered.
Talking books are available in public libraries throughout Virginia and across the nation. The National Library Service for the Blind (NLS) was established by the Library of Congress in 1931. The service — lending free talking book machines and free audio books and magazines — originally for veterans, was later expanded to include anyone who qualifies for the service.
The Fredericksburg Subregional Library’s service area is large, serving the City of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, Stafford, Orange, Westmoreland, Fauquier, King George, Caroline, and Prince William Counties. With over 400 patrons at the time of this writing, the circulation for the library is around 20,000 books a year. However, since our storage area is too small to house a Braille collection, requested Braille books are sent from Richmond. We do have a Brailler that is used to Braille letters, birthday cards, legal documents, and notices on request.
The application for Talking Book services includes a section to be filled out by a professional who can certify that a patron who is blind, visually handicapped, or physically handicapped is in need of assistive services. This section can be filled out by a therapist; a registered nurse; a doctor of medicine, osteopathy, ophthalmology, or optometry; or a professional staff member of a hospital, institution, or welfare agency (whether public or private). In the absence of any of these, certification may be provided by a professional librarian. However, in cases of reading disabilities, certification must be made by a doctor who may consult with colleagues in associated disciplines.
According to the National Library Service, blind persons must have vision that is 20/200 or less in the better eye with correcting lenses, or whose widest diameter of visual field subtends an angular distance no greater than 20 degrees. Persons may also qualify for services if they are visually impaired and unable to read standard print materials. Persons with physical limitations that hinder their ability to read standard print materials also qualify for this service.
Although the definition of learning disabilities may include reading disabilities, dyslexia, writing, reasoning ability, and/or problems with spoken language, Public Law 89-522 states that NLS materials will be loaned to readers that have a “reading disability resulting from organic dysfunction” and requires certification from a medical doctor. An individual whose reading disability is not physically based is not eligible for services.
Almost every state has a Regional Library that provides service for the majority of its patrons; however, states with large clusters of populations also have Subregional Libraries for the Blind in order to provide more personalized service for the patrons in their surrounding area and also take some of the burden off of the Regional Library.
The Regional Virginia Library for the Blind is located in Richmond. The library is conveniently located next to the Rehabilitation Center for the Blind where people with blindness reside temporarily while they are trained in coping skills. The library has warehouses full of cassette books, large print, digital books, and Braille books that they provide for their patrons. Their Brailling machines are always busy making textbooks for blind students throughout the state. It is the Regional Library that provides the machines for the Subregional Libraries and transfers the Interlibrary Loan requests for books to one of the two holding warehouses on either the east or west coast.
Virginia has seven Subregional Libraries that operate under the guidance of the Regional Library for the Blind in Richmond. The Subregional Library in Fairfax is called an Access Center and is seated in a government office complex, but the majority of Subregional Libraries are nestled within public libraries across the state in the highly populated areas of Alexandria, Arlington, Roanoke, Staunton, Virginia Beach, and Fredericksburg.
At the Fredericksburg Subregional Library, we are always struggling to make room for our growing collection of audio books in specially made cartridges and NLS players. Thanks to the cooperating network of libraries for the blind throughout the United States and Canada, our patrons have a world of books available to them. We can request any book from NLS in formats ranging from the old LP records to the new digital cartridges format. These can be mailed to the patron’s home, free of charge. Recently the National Library Service has expanded its services by giving patrons the ability to download audio books and magazines from the website directly onto their digital players: do-it-yourself with no waiting for the mail through Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD).
The greatest challenge to the manager of the Subregional Library is to provide books that match the readers’ interests. These are patrons who are avid readers but cannot browse through the library. They rely on the library staff to choose books based on their preferences. It is always a particular joy to introduce patrons to a new author they might love. The Subregional’s reader advisor must not only keep abreast of authors’ writing styles, new book series, genres, and debut novels, but also keep patrons’ preferences in mind when sending books to their homes. One patron might dislike books with violence, another may like series, some may not like the narrators with an accent, others prefer political commentaries. Some patrons who have hearing loss can only hear male narrators; others can only hear female narrators.
Another challenge is educating the staff of the library about the services of the Subregional Library. At Central Rappahannock Regional Library, all newly hired staff attend a 30-minute training session in the Subregional Library and occasional workshops are hosted to educate library staff on services for the blind and visually impaired.
On the Central Rappahannock Regional Library’s website, the Subregional Library’s web page and book blog — with recommendations for books submitted by Talking Book patrons — are located at www.librarypoint.org/talking_books. The website offers an application for services that can be downloaded. It also offers a link to apply for the ability to download BARD books. Once the patron receives the ability to use BARD, our website provides the link to login to download books.
We publish and mail a quarterly newsletter, Sightlines, which is archived online at www.librarypoint.org/Sightlines. The newsletter is a helpful way to tell patrons about the new events that are affecting Talking Books, make suggestions on maintaining the machines and books, review available books, and discuss reading habits and upcoming speaking engagements for the library’s staff.
We have been cooperating with other local agencies to provide service for years. Agencies that we often work with include the National Federation for the Blind chapters in Fredericksburg and Prince William County, vision teachers and librarians in area schools, the DisAbility Resource Center located in Fredericksburg, Volunteers for the Blind based in Fredericksburg, and a number of rehabilitation and assisted living centers and nursing homes. Several nursing homes in the area are starting book clubs with talking books. A small group of residents gather each day to listen to a section of a book and then discuss it.
Please contact Mutahara Mobashar or Beth Solka at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library if you would like more information about how the Subregional Library we house serves our patrons or how we might help you serve your patrons with similar needs. One of our Subregional Library’s satisfied patrons once said, “The reason this government program functions so well and so efficiently is because it is run by librarians.”
Elizabeth (Beth) Solka taught for 21 years and has worked for Assistive Services at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library for the last eight years. Thirty years ago, she was a James Madison University (JMU) psychology intern for the School for the Deaf and Blind in Staunton, Virginia, and subsequently worked for the Subregional Library for the Blind and Vision Impaired. Beth has a Bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Mary Washington and a Master’s degree in education from JMU.
Mutahara Mobashar is currently employed as a Research Librarian at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Prior to that she worked as a Testing Center Assistant for two years and then provided Academic Technology support for four years at Germanna Community College. She received her MLIS from the University of Alabama and Bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Richmond.