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Librarian Analyzes Talking Book Selections

Condensed from a speech by Florence Grannis (Shropshire) and reprinted from DIALOGUE, Fall 1969

EDITOR'S NOTE: In the late 1960s, when DIALOGUE was less than ten years old, library service for blind and low vision readers in the United States left much to be desired. There were few books available, and for the most part, the titles being brailled or recorded did not reflect the choices of critics or bestseller lists. The article which follows is a no-holds-barred assessment of this situation, not by a consumer of the times, but by a librarian, whose pioneering work at the Iowa Library for the Blind would do much to correct the situation described here. Nevertheless, it is clear from these 45-year-old observations that consumers are at least as important as librarians in making sure that the "bad old days" of library service never return.

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If you believe that blind people cannot ride horses, swim, dance, or bowl, you will not put books about horseback riding, swimming, dancing, or bowling into braille, onto tape, or onto Talking Books.

All book selection is based on particular philosophy and by its very nature is censorship. If you are a parent choosing books for your children, you are likely to choose books that have the type of moral precepts you wish to inculcate in them. If you are a librarian or an educator, you will probably choose books that will help the children stretch their minds, give them a fondness for reading and give them a general background of knowledge. If you are a librarian for the blind, your book selection will reflect what you believe about blindness, about blind people, and about the role of the blind in society.

The following is a profile of Mr. Blind Reader according to the way the average book selector sees him: Age--over sixty; Education--limited; Financial status--poor, on welfare; Mobility--limited; Horizons (experience of the world)--limited; Vocabulary--limited; Employed--no; Religious--yes.

The library administrator, also, sees Mr. Blind Reader as ignorant, helpless, and inferior. Isn't this why one administrator said, "We have to give service, but we don't have to give good service." This man was a first-rate administrator and directed an outstanding library for the sighted public, but his prejudiced beliefs concerning the blind shaped his library policies toward the blind reader. Improvement in the caliber of book selection for the blind, and indeed in all library services for the blind, can only be brought about by improved attitudes toward the blind.

It must be recognized that, given opportunity and proper training, the average blind person can hold the average job in the average place of business, can be independent and self-supporting; and it is vital for society, as well as for the individual, to bring about this status. It follows that if a blind person can tie his shoe ("isn't that wonderful?"), he should read at the "shoe-tying" level.

There is evidence that attitudes about and libraries for the blind are improving. More and more regional libraries for the blind are headed by people with library school degrees and are beginning to get their fair share of their system's budget. Yet, more education for both the seeing and sightless public is needed. It is no accident that library donators give over-abundant numbers of Bibles and that transcribers who will braille "naughty" books are extremely scarce.

It was early recognized that the reading needs of the blind have a wide scope. THE REPORT OF THE LIBRARIAN OF CONGRESS in 1932 stated, "The blind represent a cross-section of the sighted population since blindness is no respecter of persons or of occupations so that this group has for the most part the same literary tastes as the sighted. But the handicap of blindness emphasizes to the utmost the necessity of having a wide variety of literature available since reading is the greatest source of profitable and recreational occupation open to them." These book selection policies will only be paper policies as long as the book selectors reflect paternalism and condescension in their inner emotions.

According to Francis R. St. John's SURVEY OF LIBRARY SERVICE FOR THE BLIND, 1956, the blind book list was lacking in scientific, technical, and special categories of material when compared with standard lists. Even today, all of Freud's works have been omitted from the Talking Book and braille collections, as has Darwin's ORIGIN OF SPECIES. Today, libraries for the blind have a smaller percentage of books listed in standard book selection aids than they had at the time of the publication of St. John's survey. The survey indicated that 42.72 percent of books listed in standard book aids were available in libraries for the blind. Today the figure is 21.2 percent.

In the 1966 Fiction Catalog, 69 books were single-starred for excellence and ten were double-starred for super-excellence. The regional libraries for the blind have 17 of the single-starred and six of the double-starred books; 23 out of 79. This excludes such books as Barth's GILES GOAT-BOY, Graham Greene's THE COMEDIANS, and Malamud's THE FIXER.

Of 400 items checked in the 1966 SUPPLEMENT TO THE STANDARD CATALOG, 47 are in Talking Books and 15 are in braille. Only one-fourth of the 52 single- or double-starred books are on records. The 1967 HARDBOUND BEST SELLER LIST includes 19 books, with only seven in Talking Books and one in braille. Some of the exclusions are Kazan's THE ARRANGEMENT, Wallace's THE PLOT, Berne's GAMES PEOPLE PLAY, and Edgar Cayce's THE SLEEPING PROPHET.

More single- and double-starred books need to be included while more trivial books need to be excluded when selecting material for blind readers. Over-abundance of books such as DAYS OF GRASS by Christian Herald and FAIR IS THE MORNING by Loula Grace Erdman is typical. Erdman's book is described in the following way: "In this pleasant, wholesome, yet realistic story, a young teacher in a rural school finds challenge and opportunity aplenty. It gives an excellent picture of the teaching profession."

The point of this thesis is that book selectors are just people in their social frameworks as is everyone else, and as long as "the culture" says blind people are "different" and, in effect, less valuable and less able to participate and pay their way, these attitudes will come through, consciously or unconsciously, in book selection for them.

The recently formed Book Selection Committee is a step in the right direction. If independent blind persons and groups will vocalize their reading desires and needs to the librarians, they will have gone one step further. The blind can only arrive, however, when the attitudes about the blind and of the blind are transformed so that it is recognized that blindness is merely a characteristic like many others, that blind people cannot be stereotyped and that their hobby, vocational, and recreational reading needs are just the needs of the people.


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