President's Message: A New Day at NLS?

by Mitch Pomerantz

As many ACB members know by now, at the end of February the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) issued a release announcing that its longtime director, Frank Kurt Cylke, was retiring effective Feb. 28th. This wholly unexpected announcement came shortly after an exchange of e-mails between the director and myself regarding ACB's exclusion from the scheduled March 3rd celebration of the 80th anniversary of the National Library Service.

To summarize events: I had learned on February 18th that while the president of the National Federation of the Blind and the executive director of the Blinded Veterans Association had been invited to deliver remarks at the NLS celebration, neither ACB's executive director nor yours truly had received a similar invitation. I immediately e-mailed Mr. Cylke expressing ACB's profound displeasure over this obvious snub and questioning the director's oft-repeated statement that NLS considered ACB to be a valued and respected partner. Mr. Cylke responded on Tuesday the 22nd (Monday having been Presidents' Day) by reaffirming his respect for ACB, but indicating that as the celebration had been planned almost a year in advance it was too late to make additions to the program. My follow-up e-mail was sent after east coast business hours so I didn't expect an answer until the following day. That response never came and I assumed that the director had chosen not to reply.

On Wednesday evening just prior to departing for Washington, D.C., I was told that Mr. Cylke was notified Wednesday morning that he had been reassigned to another position within the Library of Congress. Rather than accepting reassignment, he decided to retire.

Before going further, I need to offer a couple of personal reflections. Prior to becoming president in 2007, I was well aware that relations between ACB and NLS were less than cordial. I decided to make a serious effort to improve that relationship and commenced twice yearly meetings with Mr. Cylke, usually at his office but in 2009, here in Pasadena.

Kurt and I also got together at meetings of the North American/Caribbean Region of the World Blind Union. On more than one occasion he joined me for lunch or dinner, including last year when Donna and I celebrated my 60th birthday at a restaurant in St. Kitts. At such social gatherings Kurt was friendly and attentive, with a dry sense of humor. I think he genuinely liked and respected me, regardless of his true feelings toward ACB.

Having shared those observations I want to return to the present and more importantly, ACB's future relationship with the National Library Service. Before coming to Washington, Mr. Cylke and I were scheduled to meet on Monday afternoon. The NLS release announcing Mr. Cylke's retirement also indicated that Ms. Ruth Scovill had been appointed as acting director. On Friday I called and arranged to meet with Ms. Scovill on Tuesday afternoon. Also attending this meeting would be ACB's executive director, Melanie Brunson.

Ms. Scovill has worked for the Library of Congress for several years in the area of information technology. Other than consulting on the digital transition project, however, she has had little direct involvement with the NLS program. Hence, Ms. Scovill assumes her new position with no biases or preconceptions about either of the consumer advocacy organizations. I see this as a significant positive!

I provided Ms. Scovill with some background regarding the relationship between our two organizations and I didn't mince words in the process. I expressed ACB's disappointment and displeasure over our exclusion from the upcoming NLS celebration. Further, I made it abundantly clear that we were expecting a very different and far more collaborative relationship with the library service in the future. We pointed out that NLS has thousands of borrowers in both major consumer organizations and that it was wholly inappropriate for any government entity to play favorites.

Ms. Scovill definitely heard our message and agreed that all consumers and the organizations representing them must be treated in a fair and equitable manner. We reaffirmed our previous invitation for the NLS director to attend and address this summer's 50th anniversary conference and convention and Ms. Scovill indicated that she would be there. Melanie and I came away from our meeting with a favorable impression of the acting director, but as they say, time will tell.

It is my understanding that Ms. Scovill will be in her position for from nine months to a year before a permanent director is chosen. I am cautiously optimistic that ACB has been given a golden opportunity to establish the kind of relationship with NLS that we tried, but failed to achieve under Frank Kurt Cylke. The ACB leadership is fully committed to developing and nurturing that relationship to the benefit of all patrons of the National Library Service generally, and to the membership of the American Council of the Blind specifically.