Serving Visually Impaired Patrons

Since the late 1960s, the State Library demonstrated a commitment to the library needs of visually impaired readers. The emotional and financial support provided in the 1970s and 1980s had made the State Library a national leader in the field. By the late 1990s, the library was taking even greater steps to help the more than 22,000 visually impaired residents of Illinois. One example was the 1998 implementation of Newsline Network, a service developed by the National Federation for the Blind. Text from news papers such as the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, and USA Today were downloaded directly into a network of 12 Illinois Newsline Network computers and instantly converted to speech by the computer. Using touch-tone telephones, subscribers could choose menus to access the newspaper at a convenient time and place.961

In addition to newspapers, each local service center offered information on library service, train and bus schedules, and job and community information. The State Library underwrote the costs of the program, with patrons only having to pay for the phone call to the nearest regional center. With 11 centers and a 24-line capacity, over a third of all service center sites of the world were in Illinois. Younger visually impaired readers were treated to annual summer reading programs coordinated by the state’s five Talking Book Centers. In the summer of 1997, over 300 children participated in the Talking Books summer programs.962

But the greatest achievement of the State Library in the field of visually impaired services was yet to come. Since its establishment in 1977, the Illinois Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped had been administered by the Chicago Public Library. The State Library had provided ample financial backing, including $1 million for its construction. Later renamed the Talking Book and Braille Service (TBBS), by 2000 the facility held over 15,000 books in Braille, as well as an extensive collection of audio books and the services that converted newspapers to usable formats for the blind. But eventually, the Chicago Public Library decided it could no longer administer the collection of materials for the visually impaired and disabled, and in 2000, the decision was made to move the library to Springfield. The State Library leased a row of nearby storefronts on East Washington Street, just two blocks from the library. A renovation followed, which “gutted the building to its exterior walls.”963

The reference room of the Illinois State Library, Gwendolyn Brooks Building.

The reference room of the Illinois State Library, Gwendolyn Brooks Building.

Braille books sat in storage until the June 2001 move, which was not a moment too soon for State Library staff. A spokesperson reported that the library was “chomping at the bit” to move to the TBBS facility. The relocation to Springfield was a significant event in the State Library’s commitment to serving the needs of the visually impaired. “We were very proud of how we were able to bring the BPH library to Springfield,” said Wilkins. “That created 14 new jobs in Springfield, which was also a benefit. Moving the BPH library to Springfield is one of the accomplishments that I am most proud of in my time as Director.”964

In 2003-04, TBBS coordinated a national pilot program that offered digital talking books to the visually impaired and physically disabled. Digital talking books from the online Lobe Library were read on handheld MP3 players, which were given to participants free of charge along with headphones, printed instructions, and an evaluation sheet. Near the end of the project, a national electronic book expert produced an evaluation of the venture.965

TBBS’ national leadership was recognized in 2005, when the National Library Service for the Blind and the Physically Handicapped named it and the Talking Book Centers network as the 2005 Network Library of the Year. The prestigious annual award is given to the library that demonstrates excellence, innovation, and special achievement in its services. Selection is based on three criteria: mission support, creativity and innovation, and patron satisfaction. Secretary White said that, “to be recognized as the best in the nation is an incredible honor. We are immensely proud of the services our Illinois network of libraries offers to our visually impaired patrons.”966

By fiscal year 2007, the four remaining Talking Book Centers at Chicago, Geneva, East Peoria, and Carterville joined with the TBBS in Springfield to circulate nearly 900,000 materials to registered readers in the program.967

In 2011 TBBS completed a move from the East Washington Street facility into the State Library at Second and Monroe Streets. The move brought all State Library staff together in one building, and is designed to make it easier for TBBS to address the needs of Illinois’ 28,000 print-disabled patrons.