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Home > About NLS > Other Writings > Reflections of a Lifetime Reader
Issued May 2008
Blind and physically handicapped individuals are entitled to high-quality free public library service with access to all information, books, and materials perceived as useful. This is the charge under which the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and its network of cooperating agencies function.
To review and focus our mission, we occasionally invite a distinguished author and speaker to meet with librarians and others assembled in conference to present views from a lifetime of reading. Dr. Marc Maurer is such a person. Dr. Maurer addressed the biennial National Conference of Librarians Serving Blind and Physically Handicapped Individuals in May 2008.
Frank Kurt Cylke
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Library of Congress
In so far as I remember, I have never previously been called a maven. In my position as president of the National Federation of the Blind and in certain other roles, I have been called many things—but maven is not one of them. I thank you for the compliment and I hope that I can live up to the billing.
Books have been important to me for as long as I can remember. When I was a small child, my mother read them aloud to me. When I attended the school for the blind at the age of six, I discovered that books had been recorded on great big records. The teacher would play them for us in the afternoon. One of the first I ever heard was Sharp Ears—the Baby Whale by John Y. Beatty. As I listened, I was worried about the whale.
In 1960 a library for the blind was established by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan in the state of Iowa, where I lived. I could get books simply by asking for them. They came in big packages from the post office. The first recorded book I ever received was White Falcon by Elliott Arnold, a story about a pioneer child captured by Indians and raised to become a leader of the tribe.
I did not have a record player, but our family owned a stereo that we kept in the living room. If my homework had been completed, and if nobody else was watching television, I could listen to recorded books on our stereo. My father had connected a speaker to the stereo so that he could listen to music while he worked in his carpenter shop in the basement. The volume control of the stereo adjusted both the volume of the speakers in the living room and the volume of the speaker in the basement. I discovered that when other family members were watching television I could turn the volume of the stereo down. I could not hear the recorded book in the living room.
However, if I stretched out on the workbench in the basement with my ear next to the speaker, I could listen to the book even when there was conversation and television watching in the living room. The workbench was covered with sawdust, but I didn't care. To avoid missing pieces of the recorded book, I had to get from the living room to the basement in a hurry. In order to hear what I wanted to know, I would start the stereo and race to the basement so that I would miss the fewest number of words. Sometimes the basement was a little cold, but I got to read anyway. It was worth it.
The post office also brought me big packages of braille. The books were wrapped in brown paper with string tied around it. I would untie the string very carefully and save it. I would also unwrap the paper from the books and fold it carefully to be reused in returning them to the library. In a pocket under the front cover of the first volume of each book I would find a mailing label. This was to be used to return the books to the library. When I had finished reading them, I rewrapped the bundle, tied the string, and licked the label so that it would stick to the package. I had to be careful to cover my address with the new label so that the package would go where it belonged.
When I first began receiving the braille books, I did not know that the postman who brought them would also carry packages away. I got permission from my mother to carry the packages to the post office to be shipped back to the library. I had learned that they needed no postage—that they would go as free matter to the library. I came to know the people who worked at the post office, and I was delighted when I discovered that they would indeed take charge of my braille.
The braille was more versatile than the recorded books. I could read it wherever I went. I could keep a braille volume under my bed and sneak it out at night after I was supposed to be asleep. This system also worked at the school for the blind. Special reading rooms (little cubicles containing a chair, a desk, and a talking-book machine) had been built for listening to talking books. However, I could read the braille anywhere.
One time I did sneak off at night to read a talking book. I thought it would be better not to turn on the light in the reading room. The houseparent did discover me there after a while, but he thought I had fallen asleep while I was reading and missed the bedtime bell. It did not seem prudent to me to correct his error in thought. However, if I was in bed, he didn't check to see if there was a book under the covers.
When I reached high school, the library offered to lend me a talking-book machine. I could listen to books in my own room at any time. This was liberating. Some of the books I wanted to read were for recreation, and some of them were assigned literature. At one point I invited some of my classmates to listen along with me to William Golding's Lord of the Flies. My talking-book machine went with me to college, and I have had one or another model of it wherever I have been since I first obtained one in high school.
When I was fourteen years old, I lived in Boone, Iowa, a small town about forty miles north of Des Moines, where the library for the blind was located. I had been borrowing books from the library for about five years. A listing of books would arrive in the mail. Because it was a printed document, my father would read the list to me. I would tell him what books I wanted to read. Eventually he got sick and tired of helping me make my selections because he thought some of the books I picked were too racy for me to read. Mostly, I don't think he edited my lists of requests, but I think he skipped some of the books listed in the catalog.
He would mail my requests to the library, and the packages of books would arrive from the post office. I usually got two, and on rare occasions three, books at a time. When I mailed them back, more would come. I loved getting the big fragrant volumes to read whenever and wherever I liked.
I told my mother one summer's day when I was fourteen that I would very much like to visit the library. To my amazement, she said that I could go. My younger brothers, Max and Matt, who were eleven and nine, planned to go with me. I was responsible for watching over them and seeing that they and I did not get into trouble. I saved my allowance until I had enough money for a bus ticket. The Greyhound bus stopped at a little bookstore in our town. We went to the station and bought bus tickets to travel to Des Moines. We knew that we would be visiting an important government facility, so we dressed in our Sunday clothes.
In those days, the bus depot in Des Moines was only a couple of blocks from the library for the blind. We arrived there in a little more than an hour, and we found our way to the building housing the books. The receptionist directed us to the fourth floor, where we met library personnel. They seemed bemused that a blind kid would visit the library without being accompanied by an adult. They showed me the stacks, and I began to look joyously through the rows upon rows of braille books. After a time, one of the staff members at the library brought me a chair. I selected a volume and sat down to read it.
My brothers, who were through enjoying the library in a very short time and who were tired of watching me read books, said that they would go outside to look around. I said this would be all right but that the bus for our return trip was leaving shortly after four o'clock. I urged them to be back in time for us to catch it, and they said that they would be there. They left me, and I spent the remainder of the day reading braille.
When my brothers returned shortly before four o'clock, they told me that they had explored the state capitol building and climbed all of the stairs to the top of the dome. We had spent all of our money to buy the bus tickets to come to Des Moines. We were penniless, and we had not had the forethought to bring any lunch. However, I was permitted to borrow two books from the library. On the bus ride home, we were hungry but satisfied with our adventure, and I had two new books to read.
At the school for the blind, those of us in the first grade who had very little remaining vision were taught braille. We started by studying flash cards, but fairly soon we graduated to the Dick and Jane book. Sixteen of us were in the class arranged in two rows of eight. My desk was the sixth one from the front in the first row.
We were told to open our books to page one. The teacher asked the first student in the first row to read the braille page. When the student had trouble reading the braille, the teacher corrected the errors made by the student. Then, the teacher called upon the second student in the row and again corrected the errors that student made. Before the teacher came to me, we had been through this exercise five times. When my turn came, the teacher asked me to read page one. I put my fingers on the page and spoke the words that were there. I was called to the front of the room, praised, and given a gold star to paste onto page one of my book.
We lived more than a hundred miles from the school. On weekends my father came to pick me up for the drive to our home. When he appeared in our first-grade class on Friday afternoon, my teacher advised me to take my book home with me to show to my mother. My mother had learned braille because she thought she might need to know it to communicate with me or to help me with my homework. I carried my book with me on our trip home; I explained what had happened in class, and I showed my mother my gold star. However, my mother is a suspicious woman. She asked if she could borrow my book, and I gave it to her. Later during the weekend, she brought me a piece of braille paper with words on it, and she asked me to read it. When I told her that I could not, she explained to me that it was an exact copy of page one of my book.
After I had completed the first grade, my mother took me in hand during the summer months. She decided that I was to learn braille. For an hour each day she taught me to read. I objected. My brothers didn't have homework during the summer; I was the only one. But my mother insisted, and I had no alternative. By the end of that summer I had learned to read. I returned to the school for the blind in the fall, and I discovered the school library. By the time I had finished the fifth grade, I had read every book in the school library that the librarian would let me have. Some of the books in the library were too advanced for me, she said. I have wondered ever since what they were.
I have read braille to myself for study and pleasure; I have read braille to my children; I have read braille to judges in courts of appeals; and I have read braille to tens of thousands of blind people. My mother taught me to read it, but the librarians gave me the chance to become efficient with it and to learn the thoughts of the great minds by reading it. Perhaps it is possible to do the work that I have undertaken without braille, but I don't know how it could be done. I have sometimes heard people argue that libraries are a luxury, but I cannot imagine how anybody with perspective could believe this.
During my time at the university, I sat with Thucydides' Peloponnesian War under my hands and I heard in my mind the stentorian tones of Pericles' Funeral Oration. Later, I studied the clauses of the United States Constitution in the same way and I wondered what they had meant to Abraham Lincoln. History is the record of what people have done. Literature is the record of what people have thought. Poetry is the record of the song of the spirit. In 1776, Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, declaring that this wealth is based upon labor and the efficient methods of using it. At about the same time, Benjamin Franklin said that if you want to be remembered, you should do something of sufficient importance that somebody else will want to write about it or write something worth reading. Much of the wealth of nations is contained between the covers of books. The librarians are charged with maintaining this wealth.
Within the past two years, a substantial argument has raged regarding the importance of the books for the blind program, now known as the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Should the technology employed in this service be upgraded to provide access to recorded material in digital form? Is the library of sufficient value to justify expenditures for continuing present services and for upgrading those that have not kept pace with the developing needs of the blind community and with modern technology?
The answers to such questions depend on the estimated value of the population to be served. On the one hand, if the intended population will not read the books, or even if they read the books, the people who get them will accomplish nothing or almost nothing with the information, little is lost if the library fails to provide the service that might be expected from it. On the other hand, if those who read the books gain potential thereby and undertake development of intellectual property and socially useful programs, depriving this population of reading material is not only a dramatic mistake but an act equivalent to gross and intentional negligence. It is equivalent to discarding a valuable commodity, and it diminishes the society in which we live. This is no small matter; it affects the lives, the futures, and the destinies of an entire class of human beings.
Will the lives of this group of human beings be stultified, diminished, belittled, or circumscribed? Or, will they be expanded, encouraged, and enlivened? One of the most common experiences encountered by any blind person is to be told to wait. The lives of blind people are important, yes, but not as important as something else. Wait. We will get to you. We will get to you as soon as the current emergency has come to an end. We will get to you as soon as the other priorities have been met. We will get to you when the important things have been managed. Wait.
Is it any wonder that sometimes blind people feel as if something will need to be done—now! Is it any wonder that blind people have trouble understanding why everything else seems to be important, but our lives can be conveniently moved to the back burner? Is it any wonder that after a time, restiveness becomes a primary characteristic of this so frequently underserved population? Is it any wonder that when the National Library Service determines that a modest sum is needed to give us literacy that we feel betrayed by public officials who tell us that, one more time, our right to read must be postponed?
The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped serves in excess of 700,000 blind people in the United States. Estimates are that 1.3 million blind people live in the United States. Well over 50 percent of the target population uses the services of this program. This rate of use of the library for the blind is substantially higher than the rate of use of libraries for the sighted. These numbers may reflect the reality that the only substantial source of readily available reading matter for the blind is the National Library Service. Experience indicates that blind people read in the neighborhood of thirty books per year on average. This is many, many times the number of books read by the average sighted person. Blindness is a tremendous social disadvantage and a moderate physical one. However, literacy is a way to compensate for the disadvantage. In the 1950s, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, then president of the National Federation of the Blind, estimated that between 1 and 3 percent of blind people were employed. At the time of the founding of the National Federation of the Blind in 1940, the employment rate for the blind was under 1 percent. Today it is estimated that as many as 30 percent of blind people are employed. This is at least ten times as many as were estimated to have employment in the 1950s. The difference may be measured in rehabilitation programs for the blind and in library service, with the greatest emphasis on library service.
The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped was established more than seventy-five years ago. The standard of excellence that it has enforced in the production of braille materials and in the creation of recorded documents is the envy of programs that serve the blind throughout the world. This standard is so thoroughly met by the National Library Service that it has become an article of faith. If material is produced by the Library, it is right. If it is produced by the National Library Service, it is good. A book from the Library will be without error. Can this standard be universally met? Of course exceptions occur, but this high standard is so frequently a part of the Library program that the occasional error is an aberration.
The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is committed to producing materials in braille that are second to none in quality. This program also produces recorded matter of exceptional quality. Historically, the Library has been committed to ensuring that the best available long-term technology is incorporated into the production of materials. Today, the transformation to the digital talking book is a high priority. The National Library Service believes that it has a fundamental contribution to make to the growth of opportunity for the blind of the nation, and its commitment to quality has never been compromised. The network of libraries throughout the nation that provide most of the distribution of materials to patrons has demonstrated the same commitment to quality and excellence. The people who have produced the materials, distributed the books, repaired the machines, answered the questions, and offered an encouraging word have enhanced literacy and changed lives.
Literacy has meant that blind people have capacity, but it has even greater significance. The literacy of blind people has provided a mechanism for the blind to gain inspiration and hope. We read of what others have done, and we imagine how we can do likewise. A book in the hand today frequently means an act of courage in the future. This is what library service has meant to us—more reading, more recreation, more participation in community activities, more education, more employment, more contemplation of a brighter tomorrow, more building, more joy! All of this comes from the library, and we thank you for the enormous, the incalculable contributions you have made.
Dr. Marc Maurer is president of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the oldest and largest membership organization of blind people in the United States. He also works as an attorney specializing in civil rights law and issues related to blindness and remains active in civic and political affairs.
Born in Iowa, Maurer became blind shortly after birth. As a teenager, he became active in the Iowa chapter of the NFB. He graduated cum laude from the University of Notre Dame and received a law degree from Indiana University. Since then Maurer has practiced law in Maryland, Ohio, and Washington, D.C.
At the 1985 NFB convention in Louisville, Kentucky, when the late Kenneth Jernigan announced that he would not seek reelection as president of NFB, he endorsed Maurer as his successor. The following year Maurer was elected with resounding acclamation. As president Maurer has sought to lead NFB in bold new directions. Under his leadership, NFB has built the Jernigan Institute, a center for developing innovative technologies, products, and services that increase the independence of blind people. One of the early products of the Institute is the Kurzweil-NFB handheld reading machine, which was produced in conjunction with the futurist and inventor Raymond Kurzweil.
Marc Maurer passionately believes that the organized blind are the people best equipped to solve the challenges facing them. His advocacy for change has gained him recognition across the globe.
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Posted on 2010-11-12