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July 7, 2011

IMLS Press Contacts
Natasha Marstiller, [log in to unmask]

Mamie Bittner, [log in to unmask]

July 2011 Project Profile: State Talking Book Libraries: Programs for People with Visual or Physical Disabilities

Most Kentucky Talking Book Library patrons are senior citizens, but they range from age 1 to age 105. (Photo provided by Library of Congress)

Pictured: "Good Book, Good Friends". (Photo provided by
Library of Congress)

Talking books are wonderful and make my life so much better.
--Patron, Spokane Valley, Washington Talking Book and Braille Library (WTBBL)

It is such a blessing to have talking books. Multiple sclerosis has taken a great deal of my vision.
--Patron, Kentucky Talking Book Library (KTBL)

IMLS provides funding to state libraries through its Grants to State Library Administrative Agencies, the largest of all of its grant programs. In 2009, 10% of this funding directly supported libraries for the blind and physically disabled. State libraries around the country provide critical services to visually and physically impaired Americans including braille materials and specially recorded audiobooks also known as "talking books". Materials are mailed to patrons at no cost and provide an important lifeline to the world for many housebound or elderly patrons.

For two of these libraries—the Kentucky Talking Book Library (KTBL) and the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library (WTBBL)—success has continued, despite recent budget cutbacks, thanks to dedication from volunteers, strong connections with community groups and patrons, and the enthusiastic adoption of new technology.

“I think a lot of people believe, ‘There are lots of audiobooks and ebooks out there, [those who are visually and physically impaired] don't need anything special.’ But I don't think people realize the very small percentage of materials that are available in alternate formats," said Barbara Penegor, Kentucky Talking Book Library Branch Manager. “If you go into your local public library, sure they have audiobooks on CD ... but they don't have the number of books available through our service, or they don't have the breadth of service. Most of them will have the bestsellers or popular things, but we're able to provide them with stuff like cookbooks and books on disability and biographies of lesser–known historical figures.”

YouTube Video of Introduction to the Kentucky Talking Book Library

Click on image to access video (YouTube)
Introduction to the Kentucky Talking Book Library

New Technology Increases Access and Enhances User Experiences
The integration of new technology has revolutionized how talking book libraries function. Since the 1970's, talking book libraries had relied on analog cassette players to play recorded books. Recently, however, the libraries have begun transitioning to new digital players—a move that has been met with great enthusiasm from patrons. With an entire book on a single digital cartridge, digital players eliminate the frustration of changing and flipping tapes, a major improvement for patrons with physical disabilities or lack of strength. “If you have limited dexterity, the cassette buttons took a bit of pressure to push, whereas the digital machine buttons are soft touch, so it doesn't take any strength at all to push them,” explains Penegor.

In Washington, word of mouth about the new technology helped spur renewed interest in the library says Danielle Miller, Program Manager for WTBBL. “People were getting [digital players] who hadn't used the library in forever. People were signing up who had never used the library. Books were going out pretty much as soon as they came in the door and people were willing to read things that they never would have read before because they wanted to use the digital player.”

Volunteer Support Ensures Program Success
Although both libraries have a talented and devoted staff, they credit much of their success to the ongoing commitment of their volunteers. “It's really the volunteers that make everything we do possible,” explains Miller. At the WTBBL, volunteers contribute more than 32,000 hours of their time every year—the equivalent of 16 full time employees. They are the driving force behind the WTBBL's Evergreen Radio Station, a special service of the library that provides 24 hour programming for patrons.

Volunteers read local and national newspaper articles, host talk shows about local events, and conduct interviews with popular authors. The programming is more than just entertainment, however. It also provides practical information that would otherwise be difficult for the visually impaired to access. “One of our most popular programs is called “Grocery Cart”, explains Miller. “All the supermarket circulars come out on Tuesdays and the volunteer narrators go through and read what's for sale and where it's for sale. It's a nice way for a lot of our people who maybe get out only once a week or are on a fixed income. They can see, ‘Oh cantaloupe is on sale at Safeway. Let's go there.’”

KTBL relies heavily on volunteer support as well, particularly for the narration and recording of their special collection of books about Kentucky or by Kentucky authors. KTBL has had a wonderful record of volunteer loyalty—many of their volunteers have been with the library for 20 years or more. Penegor works hard to give back to the volunteers, arranging trips to see how braille books are printed and inviting special speakers to the yearly volunteer appreciation dinner. “This year we're hoping to have some professional narrators—people who are paid to record the talking books from the Library of Congress—come in and talk to them so they can meet a superstar!”

Using Communications, Outreach, and Partners to Respond to Fiscal Challenges
Both libraries work hard to get the word out about the services they offer. Penegor hosts in training sessions for new Kentucky public library directors to make sure they're aware of KTBL's services. Recently, she enlisted the help of two of her patrons—an 88 year old woman who uses talking books and a young reader of braille—to star in an introductory YouTube video for new patrons. WTBBL works closely with care facilities, retirement centers and the blinded veteran's center, connecting with activity directors and giving presentations about the library. Close relationships with patrons, other local libraries, and institutions for the visually and physically impaired have helped KTBL and WTBBL deal with ongoing budget cuts.

In the past few years, KTBL has taken over library services for regional talking book libraries which were forced to close their doors. Good communication between the branches allowed for a smooth transition and minimal disruption to patrons. “Even though the Louisville library closed three years ago I'm still in occasional contact with the former librarian,” says Penegor. In Washington, other public libraries and patrons have stepped in to help replace services the WTBBL can no longer afford. “Some of our large print readers know that we can't afford to buy these books any more so they often donate books that they have read or money specifically for that purchase,” says Miller. “We've been working with public libraries in the area and getting donations. Recently, a public library system donated 14 boxes of large print books in great condition.”

Improving Quality of Life for Patrons
Talking book libraries have loyal patrons and that should come as no surprise. Much of the patron base is elderly or retired --the average patron at KTBL is a widowed woman in her eighties. As Penegor explains, “Listening to a talking book is like staying in touch with the world—not only learning things—but it's another human voice in an empty house.” “At the state library we provide a lot of great services,” adds Kentucky State Librarian Wayne Onkst, “but I can't imagine one that has more impact than this one.”

IMLS remains committed to making accessibility and inclusion top priorities for the agency and the libraries and museums it serves. Learn more at

Click here to find Talking Book Library services in your community.

About the Institute of Museum and Library Services
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation's 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support professional development. To learn more about the Institute, please visit