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Reading: It’s More Than Meets the Eye

a Digital Talking Book Machine

I work at a library that provides reading materials for the “print 
disabled” — those people who cannot read a traditional print book for a physical reason. It’s a network library of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), a division of the Library of Congress, and the program has been around for about eighty years.

NLS, through its libraries, provides books and magazines in audio and braille. For audiobooks, NLS also furnishes a machine to play these books. Originally that was a record player; then a cassette player; now it is a “Digital Talking Book Machine” (DTBM). Instead of a record or cassette, books are stored on flashdrives. Both the DTBM and cartridge that contains the flashdrive are provided on loan at no cost and are specifically designed for the needs of the print-disabled community. For example, both the DTBM and cartridge have both print and braille labels. The DTBM even allows the listener to adjust the pitch, speed, and volume of audiobooks. Both audiobooks and braille books can also be downloaded for those who have access to the internet and (for downloadable web-braille) the technology needed to access and read these types of e-books.

When I tell people where I work, I sometimes hear about how our library made a positive impact on the life of a grandparent or elderly neighbor. Almost always, it’s someone who has diminished vision for age-related reasons; occasionally it’s someone whose arthritis has made it impossible to hold a book or turn the pages.

When I explain that I don’t work with those adults but with the children and teens who are members of our library, many people seem taken aback, as if it hadn’t occurred to them that young people might also need alternate forms of print. And this is why the outreach component of my job is so important. If people don’t know we serve young print-disabled readers, it makes it even harder (and sometimes more expensive) for those readers to get access to the same material their peers are reading. To be honest, most people don’t know about NLS and what it offers. My outreach doesn’t involve visiting local schools and community centers and talking to kids and teens about library services. Instead, I search for the adults — teachers, school staff, librarians, health care workers — who don’t know we exist but who work with children who are eligible for our services. If they have heard about us, they either think we are just for people who are blind (with the further mistaken belief that blind means total vision loss) or that we don’t offer anything different from a bookstore, public library, or school library.

This misunderstanding is usually the easiest to correct. I explain that, yes, we have braille for braille readers, but we also have resources for people with low vision — the inability to read standard print even with glasses. I also explain that the definition of “physical handicap” includes not just people who are unable to hold a book or turn the pages but also, in some situations, people with reading disabilities. Simple.

Every now and then people will point to the number of commercial audiobooks and text-to-speech options on computers and electronic devices and ask me if braille is going away. My usual response is, Are those reasons for print to go away? The same benefits of children learning how to read and write standard print also apply to those people who learn how to read and write braille. Organizations such as the National Federation of the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind advocate for braille education. Places like the American Printing House for the Blind, National Braille Press, and Seedlings sell braille books.

Personally, I think it’s a good idea for a library to have at least a few braille books around. Why? First, because it is something that kids find interesting. Second, it shows readers that braille is just another way for people to read and is as valid and real as print. Third, it’s a way to show kids and teens how braille really works, outside of a sample ABC card. What type of book to get? Print/braille picture books can be read by all types of readers: I often have adult braille readers ask for these titles to read to their sighted children. (One caveat: braille takes up a lot of shelf space! One chapter book can comprise several volumes.)

Less simple than explaining who NLS serves is educating people about why books for these readers can’t be found in a bookstore or typical library. The reason for that is copyright law and the Chafee Amendment…and I’m losing you already, right? What is important here is that the Chafee Amendment allows for the creation of books in alternate formats (braille and audiobooks) for people with print disabilities (those who need alternate formats to read the book) without the permission of the copyright holder (which means that the publishers and authors don’t get paid).

Why make this exception for people with print disabilities? Why can’t they just read commercially produced audiobooks? It’s true that there are many more commercial unabridged audiobooks published today than there were when NLS was created in 1931, or when the Chafee Amendment was passed in 1996. But do the math. To listen to the commercial audiobook, you need a device to listen to the book (an extra cost not incurred by a person without print disabilities). Next, you need to buy the audiobook version, which costs much more than the hardcover, the paperback, or the e-book. Is that fair to family budgets? Or to school or public library budgets? The answer is “no” — so the Chafee Amendment allows NLS to create its own audiobooks. Sometimes there is overlap with commercial audiobooks, but NLS also produces types of books that are less commonly published in audio form: scholarly books, cookbooks, midlist fiction, series titles, books for all ages. (It doesn’t record textbooks—for that, you need to go to LearningAlly.) And since not every publisher produces every one of their books in audio format, NLS is able to best serve its patrons by recording audiobooks that are of specific interest to them. NLS also provides, on loan, the DTBM, eliminating any expense on the behalf of its patrons.

Here is an example of a book that print-disabled readers can only get from NLS: Trapped by Michael Northrop (Scholastic, 2011). It’s published only in hardcover, paperback, and e-book, so those teens who need audio can’t listen to it on a commercially produced audiobook. But — yes, they can, because NLS has recorded it and made it available.

So that’s the long explanation as to why NLS has books that you won’t find in the bookstore or a library. NLS books are just for the print disabled and only available through its network of libraries; you cannot buy them, you can only borrow them, and you can only borrow them if you’re eligible. If you want to find out what NLS has, you can’t look at an online bookseller or even at WorldCat; you have to go to either the NLS online catalog or the online catalog of your state’s network library.

See the problem here? You can only find the books at NLS if you know about NLS, so those kids who may need our services and who want that book won’t find it until someone tells them, their teachers, or their family about our library. Thus, the outreach portion of my job. And, too often, people just don’t know. Yes, it gets a bit frustrating when it is kids wanting to read the book that all their friends are reading, when they are reading it, and without having to pay two or three times the amount to do so.

NLS provides a valuable service offering books in alternate formats at no cost to the end user. There are other sources for books; as I’ve mentioned, unabridged commercial audiobooks are available and can meet some of the needs of print-disabled readers. School and public libraries who have these audiobooks are meeting the needs of their readers who read in alternate formats. Another possible option? E-books. I’m a champion of e-books and e-readers, though I realize they’re hardly perfect and they can cost a lot of money and, as librarians know, library lending is still being worked out. Still, even with these limitations, there are significant possibilities offered by e-books and e-readers that can make these titles accessible to those who read in alternate formats. For instance, some Kindle books allow for text-to-speech. This is a terrific feature for people who need to read audiobooks — and it allows them to do so at the identical price point as everyone else buying those e-books. This isn’t a catch-all solution; first, not every e-book includes it. Second, not every publisher allows it. Third, at this writing only upper-end Kindle devices have audio capability. And if assistance is needed to get to that book that allows text-to-speech, it is not an ideal solution to the reader, who loses all privacy. Imagine a thirteen-year-old (with low vision or maybe dyslexia) always having to ask a parent to buy a book and then again having to ask for help to navigate through the device to get to the book before being able to read it! If some of this sounds a bit familiar, it’s because organizations such as the National Federation of the Blind are very vocal in their advocacy efforts to make e-reader devices fully accessible. Quick message to publishers: trust me, many people who are print disabled would love to buy your e-books just like everyone else, right when they first come out! Text-to-speech increases sales for that community (and perhaps for your bottom lines).

You know what else increases sales for the print-disabled community, especially children and teens? The ability to tweak the book design in order to make reading easier. Being able to increase the type size of e-books can turn any copy into a large-print version. Even changing the font itself, to one that is easier to read, could make a huge difference for readers, or allowing for change in contrast, such as white text on a black background or red on green. And remember the issue with text-to-speech and navigating to the book? That is also true for large-print books: does the device allow magnification of the menus, allowing a person to on their own buy and find the book?

What about large-print books? Yes, e-books and e-readers provide some possibilities, but not all, and some people just prefer paper. Right now, there are very few places one can buy them for children and teens. Thorndike is the most well known large-print vendor that does offer kids’ books, but they produce only one or two titles a month. That’s roughly twenty-four titles a year, out of the thousands of books being published. In addition, the younger the intended audience, the less likely the book has been made into large print. Large print is typically a sixteen-point font or higher; picture books and early chapter books are usually at least that size. I constantly get requests for books from kindergarten to about fifth grade in large print, and it’s usually difficult to find books that are made in special large-print editions (including chapter books) in this age range. Plus, places like Thorndike have the books for only a short time. Books aren’t automatically made into large print by publishers. Just as an author sells, say, the audiobook rights to their work, so, too, do they sell the large-print rights. Have those rights been bought? Or exercised? And for how long a time period? A book may have been made into large print several years ago, but those rights may have expired.

Here’s an example: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. Go find it on Amazon in large print, and you’ll discover that, at best, you’ll have to spend over seventy dollars for it used and over a hundred for it new. In contrast to all this drama (and cost!) over large print, e-books are a really good way for print-disabled children to be able to read the same book as their friends.

What impresses me most about the kids I work with is how many of them love reading: they find an author, a series, or a genre and want those books. Some kids may start as reluctant readers because they haven’t had the large print or audiobooks they need, so of course it’s had an impact on their reading. Alternate formats, readily available without significant cost, change all that. What these kids want is to have the exact same reading opportunities as their friends and classmates. They want to be able to encounter the text one-on-one, without a teacher or parent reading it to them. They want to find and browse and select books on their own, without asking someone for help. Sometimes I can make that happen by having the books here at my library; other times, I check the catalogs of other places that also operate under the Chafee Amendment, such as Learning Ally or Bookshare; or, I try to determine if an e-book copy exists.

How can other people help to create a world in which these kids have the exact same access and ability to read the books they want, how and when they want? First, don’t treat audiobooks as inferior to print, or equate listening to them as a way of cheating. Don’t be surprised to find out that kids — not just older adults — may have low vision and would benefit from reading large print. Look at what you do through the perspective of the child or teen who has print disabilities: When creating booklists and displays, putting together reading assignments or classroom libraries, find out what titles exist in alternate formats and get them for your readers. Mix up the print books with audiobooks. When making copies of those booklists, use at least a sixteen-point font. Often in September, I’ll send out ten, twenty, or thirty books to a child’s school just to have them in the school library or in the classroom library so that the child can browse and find things, just like every other student in their school. Simply call your local network library to get the same services for your kids.

When looking at e-readers or other devices or computers, examine the assistive technology they have or don’t have. It’s not one size fits all; different solutions work for different kids, so involve them in “test driving” the devices and books.

Reading is a wonderful thing: whether it’s print, or braille, or audio; whether it’s an electronic book or print. Print disabilities are not a barrier to reading: with thought and consideration, kids who read using alternate formats can have the same opportunities as every other kid in their classroom.

Resources for More Information

American Foundation for the Blind,
AFB’s goal is to remove barriers, create solutions, and expand possibilities so people with vision loss can achieve their full potential.

American Printing House for the Blind,
A resource for educational, workplace, and independent living products and services for people who are visually impaired.

An accessible online library for people with print disabilities. At the moment, there is a membership fee but it is free for U.S. students. Depending on the title, books are read using DAISY, other screenreaders, or embossed braille.

Copyright Law Amendment, 1996,
Explains the Chafee Amendment and Copyright law as it applies to creating alternate reading formats for those who cannot read standard print.

LearningAlly (formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic),
Provides textbooks and audiobooks. Unlike NLS, there is a yearly membership charge.

National Braille Press,
A nonprofit braille publisher, National Braille Press promotes literacy for blind children through outreach programs and provides access to information by producing books and informational resources in braille.

National Federation of the Blind,
A membership organization of blind people in the United States. Encourages independence through advocacy, education, research, technology, and programs.

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped,
The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, through a network of libraries, administers a free loan program for recorded and braille books and magazines for residents of the United States who are unable to read or use standard print materials because of visual or physical impairment.

Braille books for children.

Thorndike Press,
Commercial large-print books, including books for children and teens. NLS has additional information on various large-print publishers at Reading Materials in Large Print: A Resource Guide at

A network of library content and collections. NLS is not a member, so our collections are 
not included.

Elizabeth Burns About Elizabeth Burns

Elizabeth Burns is a youth services consultant for a network library of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and hosts the SLJ blog A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy.



  1. Carol Sullivan says:

    I am very interested in reading book into audio format for others to enjoy. How can i get a position doing that?
    THank you!

  2. I’m not sure if you’re interested in volunteer or paid opportunities, so I’ll share a bit for both.

    There are some resources online about how to go about being a professional narrator, like this one from Audio Publishers Association:

    Here is information from NLS about employment opportunities with their studios:

    LearningAlly has volunteers record books, so you could contact them for volunteer opportunities:

    Some, but not all, network NLS libraries have volunteers record books and newspapers and magazines. You can look here: to find a NLS network library near you and contact them about volunteer possibilities.

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