Join Us in Our Advocacy, So That All May Read
by Paul Edwards
We have just begun the third leap year of the present century. I am amazed about how much has happened in the field of libraries and people who are blind already this century. You will probably be glad that I do not propose to review all that has happened. Instead I want to consider for a while what the changes have meant to people who are blind and to Library Users of America. I would suggest that some of what has happened has not been good for the organization which I serve as president. And yet ...
Library Users of America was formed at a time when there were not a lot of reading options for people who were blind. We began before Bookshare or Web-Braille, and BARD was not even on the horizon. Cassettes were a relatively new thing and public libraries, by and large, didn't want to know much about blind people. After all, "they have talking books," they said. The Apple IIe was the computer most people were using if they were blind, and many of us were reading books with Optacons. Kurzweils were colossi that lived in libraries and cost $50,000. Goodness, those were the days.
To a degree, as well, LUA was formed to provide another means of providing input to NLS (the National Library Service). I think it would not be inaccurate to suggest that there were elements that our members felt needed attention there. Braille books were precious and rare and we could expect to wait at least 6 months before a book our non-blind friends were reading became available to us.
How the world has changed! I promised I would not catalog changes and I won't. You all know what they are. What should LUA be advocating for? There are more books in accessible format than we can ever use. Public libraries are distributing audio books and accessible eBooks, and the law says their web sites need to be accessible to us. Scanners and even scanning software are much cheaper than they were, and much more accurate. Blind people have virtually unlimited access to reading materials now and things are getting better every year! And yet ...
There are still lots of formats of books appearing on the web that cannot be read by blind people. Many people have no idea about what book resources are out there or how we can get them as blind people. Not all at NLS is golden. We need to continue to insist on being a part of new developments and initiatives.
When I attended the White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services (I think that is what it was called) in 1990, there were those speaking who were certain that libraries as we know them would be gone by 2050. Local branches of public libraries are closing now. Subregional talking book libraries are disappearing in droves. At colleges, computers are replacing books, and paper collections are shrinking. If print books gradually go the way of the dodo and are replaced by portable electronic readers, can braille books be far behind? We seem to be getting closer to the point where braille displays will actually be affordable by many blind people. We are not there yet, but the cost of displays is down 40 percent over the past 5 years, and that is significant.
So, where does this leave LUA? I think it leaves us with lots to do. We need to become evangelists of the new and protectors of the old. We need to be sure that we speak for those who can use the new but also for those who cannot. There is still much that needs our advocacy as well. The laws say our rights are protected. Reality says that far too many library-like resources are inaccessible and there are more and more search engines that are becoming less and less friendly because of their use of graphics and Java scripts. Libraries are where we get information and do research. If more and more of those options are moving to the Internet, we must make sure our needs are considered. We need to be sure that online instruction and access to information for our blind children and youth are protected and maintained. Florida and other states are requiring students to take online courses, and many vendors of such courseware know little and care less about access. Even if some of us do not know how to use all the new sources for books, we must be sure that the next generation of students is expert.
At the state and local levels, we must become the advocates of libraries. If the infrastructure of libraries collapses, our talking book program will find it very hard to survive. Our program is only tenable if there are state libraries that offer the space and staffing that our members need if they are to retain optimal services. Our efforts must also try to save subregional libraries where our needs get a local face. They are often the only entities that work to make sure that public libraries are concerned with our needs at all.
There is a lot for us to do, then. It is a different stewardship but no less vital. Will you help us refocus, re-energize and recommit to the new imperatives that face blind users of libraries? I hope so. We need you, and our country and the world needs Library Users of America!