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by B. T. Kimbrough

Some Thoughts on Braille from the New NLS Director

Frank Kurt Cylke, who directed NLS, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, for most of the last 40 years, was essentially a career librarian. When he got the NLS job in 1973, he had worked for several years at the Library of Congress where the NLS ranks as one small division in an extensive array of networks and collections. When I asked Karen A. Keninger, the new NLS Director, about the career path which recently moved her into Cylke's former office at 1291 Taylor Street in Washington, she said that her connection to libraries had an early beginning and a lasting intensity.

"The library has been extremely important to me all of my life. I am a blind person, and I've used the library since there was a library to use in Iowa where I grew up. I love libraries.

"I began working at the Iowa Department for the Blind, not in the library but in the Vocational Rehabilitation Section. Then the position of director in the library came open--and I was very familiar with the library--the director of the agency sent me up there as interim director. I loved it so much that I applied and was hired for that position. So that's basically how I got into the library field."

Keninger is the first consumer of braille and Talking Books to serve as Director of NLS. When she picked up the phone to join me for a DIALOGUE interview on July 12, she had been in her new role for about four months--not much time for finished accomplishments at the measured pace of federal projects, but plenty of time to give serious thought to the challenge which lies ahead of her.

As a consumer of accessible reading of many kinds, Keninger has endorsed NLS plans to develop an application which will eventually turn Apple portable devices into Talking Book players for eligible readers. I asked her if she anticipates a danger that Congress might one day remove or at least reduce tax dollars for the special NLS digital Talking Book player.

"Way more than half of the people that we serve do not have those iPhones in their hands. The people who have iPhones tend to be younger; but the people who lose their vision in later age are not going to be using iPhones--at least not now. They may in the next 20 or 30 years. Today's population certainly does not and will not, and they need the digital Talking Book machine."

I asked her what kind of commitment she believes NLS should make to braille readers. "NLS needs to make a big commitment to braille readers. I believe that we need to completely take a look at our braille program as it stands now, increase the quantity of materials and perhaps the scope. Also, I think there are some technological advances coming in the next several years that NLS needs to stay right up with, to play a major role in making braille as available to everyone in this new digital age as it can possibly be.

"I know that there's been a decrease in braille readership over the past 40 years for a number of reasons. But without braille, blind people have no opportunity to be literate--I don't believe that audio covers literacy. It does many, many things, but it is not a literacy medium.

"We'll be doing some discussion with all kinds of stakeholders in the field of braille. I want to hold a symposium--a gathering of some sort--to look at that from all corners of the braille world some time within the next year. To take a real look at where braille is going and how braille can be revived as a literacy medium so that blind people of all ages--but especially younger people who are more likely to use it--can thoroughly have access to it in ways that they are willing to use."

One of the challenges of Keninger's new position is the complex budget-making process. I asked her if she had ever experienced anything quite like a Congressional budget hearing before moving from Iowa to Washington, DC, earlier this year.

"It is going to be challenging, I will grant you that. There have been many challenges in my life, but this one is going to be a big one ... Congress did generously fund the conversion to the digital Talking Book program, and that was certainly a very positive thing. Aside from the fact that we did lose the last year of funding on the Talking Book conversion, our budget has remained relatively stable, and we expect a flat budget this year. That's better than what I experienced in Iowa, which was about a 30 to 35% decrease in our funding over the three years that I was director there."

For most of its 80-year history, NLS has represented just about the only source of accessible recreational reading available to most legally blind people in the United States. Now, low-cost sources such as Bookshare and Learning Ally, as well as readily accessible commercial sources such as Audible, Amazon, and Blio are within reach of many NLS patrons. Might an awareness of these charitable and commercial resources eventually tempt Congress to reduce funding for NLS?

"The books that are being produced by Bookshare are a totally different technology than what NLS does. And the books that are available in audio formats from other sources these days, Audible and what not, are expensive to do the kind of reading that I do if you have to buy all the books. Although I could afford it, many people could not.

"I think that there's a place for each thing; and the place for NLS is to be the basic library service accessible to everyone who is qualified--regardless of their technology abilities, regardless of their income or socioeconomic level, regardless of their age. And that's something that a commercial organization cannot do, that's something that only a public library can do."

The Summer issue of DIALOGUE quoted some views about the importance of consumer input from a pioneer librarian in the blindness field, Florence Grannis (Shropshire). I asked Ms. Keninger for her views.

"I believe that we should be working toward the goals of our consumers--I'm one of the consumers, so I want input as well from a personal perspective. I believe that NLS has, at times, been less responsive to consumer input than I want it to be. My goal is to have a very open dialogue with consumers all of the time. We're going to be doing a consumer survey this fall--a big one--to find out what we can. My goal is to have as much discussion with people as possible, to have open forums. I had one at each of the consumer conventions and got some very good input from people.

"The Collection Development Advisory Group did not meet this past year; we did some other things that we thought might substitute at some level. But I know it's important to get consumer feedback, and it's something I am extremely committed to getting. I'm freely giving people access to my email. If you want something, let me know. My staff is here also, but I'm available, and I want to hear what people have to say."

Director Keninger said she has five defined goals as she begins her tenure at NLS:

  1. "To maintain the quality of the products that we produce or have produced by our contractors.
  2. "To expand the scope and the quantity of materials available to our patrons through NLS; I believe that with more opportunities for technology, for cooperation with commercial audio producers, for a different way of producing braille, we can make a wider variety and a greater quantity of materials for our patrons.
  3. "To leverage technology to make the reading and delivery systems better for our consumers. That means looking at BARD (the Braille and Audio Reading Downloads website) and making changes there as we can to improve it. That means the iPhone app. That means, look at the digital player and see what enhancements are next for that. I would retire happy if I were able (and I think it can be done) to provide a low-cost, easy-to-maintain, refreshable braille device to anybody who wants one through the NLS system the way we provide the Talking Book machines. That goal is down the road, because the technology that it would require has yet to be developed. But I believe that it's coming. That's an extremely important goal of mine over the next few years.
  4. "To increase the visibility of and access to braille, to raise awareness of the value of braille and to look at the NLS program in terms of our collection development and the way that we produce braille that people want and need. Rather than making internal decisions, I want customer feedback. The teacher who is working with a blind adult learning braille, what do they need? A teacher working with a small child learning braille, what do they need? Do they need it in Grade One, uncontracted, or contracted--those kinds of issues we need to look at.
  5. "To expand the readership--people who are eligible to use our services but who are unaware of them or don't know that we can meet their needs."

To contact NLS Director Karen A. Keninger, the direct email address is The NLS mailing address is 1291 Taylor Street NW, Washington DC 20011.


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