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Unique Oakland library seeks to expand reading opportunities for disabled

| Tuesday, May 19, 2015, 11:18 p.m.
Eric Kresh, a monitor at the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, listens to Judi Kimblin, a narrator at the library, read the collected stories of Gladys Schmitt on Friday, May 15, 2015, at the library’s offices in Oakland.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Eric Kresh, a monitor at the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, listens to Judi Kimblin, a narrator at the library, read the collected stories of Gladys Schmitt on Friday, May 15, 2015, at the library’s offices in Oakland.
Russel Kuba, 37, of Point Breeze reads using a Braille reader on Friday, May 15, 2015, in the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Oakland.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Russel Kuba, 37, of Point Breeze reads using a Braille reader on Friday, May 15, 2015, in the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Oakland.
Jose Ruiz of the North Side, an employee for the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, scan discs of audio books on Friday, May 15, 2015, at the library's offices in Oakland.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Jose Ruiz of the North Side, an employee for the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, scan discs of audio books on Friday, May 15, 2015, at the library's offices in Oakland.

The Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Oakland is as quiet as any other library but for different reasons.

The library doesn't get many walk-in visitors, but the site is a powerhouse in shipping reading materials to visually impaired people, officials said.

It is the only library provider of free digital and recorded books in the state — it shipped 749,500 items to patrons' homes last year — but many people don't know about the service the library provides, said its new director, Mark Lee.

“People are literally in the dark,” he said.

Lee is working to lead a new outreach effort for the library, which is part of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, to increase programming. Based on what the community requests, programs could include Braille instruction, teaching patrons how to use refreshable Braille devices and global positioning systems geared toward the visually impaired, children's events, book clubs and providing information about transportation options, such as ride-sharing companies, he said.

Some books the library ships are recorded in-house by volunteers, but it receives most of its digital and recorded books from the Washington-based National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, which is part of the Library of Congress and the biggest provider of reading materials for the blind nationwide.

There are 100 cooperating libraries in the national library service's network. The federal government pays for them to ship Braille and audio materials to eligible patrons.

Most states have at least one library for the blind. Pennsylvania has two, including one in Philadelphia that ships all of the Braille books in the state and large-print books to patrons in the eastern part of the state.

The Oakland library receives $1.5 million annually from the state for staffing, building upkeep, computers and services.

Technology a factor

One factor spurring its efforts to increase programming is the expansion of digital technologies that offer better portability, sound quality and functionality than record players and cassette tapes.

“Right now, one size does not fit all for blind people. I think the dream would be universal accessibility through technology so that a blind person and a sighted person would have the same sorts of access,” said Karen Keninger, director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

Cassette players, which replaced records and played audiobooks for about 30 years, have been replaced by “digital talking books,” which feature USBs inside cartridges that can be used to download books, or they can come pre-downloaded.

The national library service provides audiobook players free to eligible patrons through its cooperating libraries.

A talking book can be downloaded onto a smartphone or tablet for free through the national library's Braille and Audio Reading Download, or BARD.

Text from books, emails and apps on a smartphone or computer screen can be converted to Braille on a refreshable Braille display via Bluetooth technology, said Don Ciccone, manager of operations at the Oakland library.

“It's much easier (to access information with today's technology) …and it will advance further,” said library volunteer Russell Kuba, 37, who was born legally blind and uses a refreshable Braille display.

The library has a few to loan to local patrons, and they are expensive — about $1,300 each, Lee said.

“The potential here is unbelievable for doing all kinds of things in the future,” said Lee, who said the staff has been participating in outreach activities at local senior citizens centers, churches, festivals and other events.

“Outreach is extremely important because what happens is people don't know that this service is available,” Keninger said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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