Blind World Magazine

United Kingdom.
One of the most remarkable libraries in the world.

November 13, 2005.
The Herald (UK).

The maiden aunt of the Christmas season is, surely, the humble book token. Quiet and unassuming, traditional and, perhaps, a little unfashionable, it is more reliable and welcome than most of the other festive treats we're showered with. In my house at least, it's one of the most coveted gifts, the sort you tuck out of sight as soon as received in case of accidental theft. This year, however, when you open that enticingly slim package you may find more inside than you expect. The value might be 10 or 100, but take a peek at the back of the token, and you'd need a heart of tungsten not to realise that what you've been given is, literally, priceless.

On the token you'll find information about one of the most remarkable libraries in the world. That may seem strange when you've just been given carte blanche to ditch your lender's card for the day and run wild in a bookshop, but this library is no ordinary library: it's the National Library for the Blind. Based in Stockport, near Manchester, it is the world's second largest library for the blind, outclassed only by the Library of Congress in Boston. It contains 350,000 books in Braille, music scores in Braille, and hundreds of giant-print titles for children.

One of the most sophisticated lending libraries in Britain, it offers a next-day service to readers anywhere in the UK, and to 70 countries overseas. There's only one problem: unlike any other public library, this one operates wholly by charitable donation. So, while the blind or partially sighted person's taxes go towards library provision for the rest of us, their library gets absolutely no government funding. To make the situation worse, books tailored to their needs are vastly more expensive than the ordinary sort. To make a book in Braille costs 700, and each copy of it thereafter is 50, while a giant-print book costs 50. As a result, only 5% of titles are ever turned into books for the blind and visually impaired. Imagine walking into a bookshop and finding shelves with 95% of their stock removed and you get some idea of how meagre that provision is.

The liaison between the National Library for the Blind and National Book Tokens is a new initiative, forced onto the library by an increasingly tough financial climate. Don't worry: you won't be asked to hand in your book token at the nearest school for the blind. All the token does is tell you about the library, and how - should you wish to make a donation - you can. They are hoping, no doubt, that as you slump in your armchair on Boxing Day with a new bestseller, you'll spare a thought for those whose reading life is so much more limited than yours.

Pat Beech, director of Library and Information Services at the National Library for the Blind, is to books for the blind what Jamie Oliver is to school dinners. Unlike some who work in the library, she has no direct experience of blindness. She does, however, have a vivid imagination: "I just have a great passion for books and reading," she says, "I just can't imagine living life without reading every day." She describes her typical Saturday morning: "I park the car, I walk up the street and I go into the Oxfam charity bookshop and I browse there and I probably would buy a couple of books there, and then I go to my Waterstone's and then to Smith's, and I'll browse there, and then I'll go to the public library. All those books are available to me to choose from.

" And you do choose books by the mood you're in. Blind and visually impaired people can't use the Oxfam bookshop, they can't use Waterstone's, they can't use Smith's, and they can only use their public library for audio or ordinary-sized large print. So, their choice is limited, and that freedom of choice, and that excitement about browsing, is limited. What we try to do here on our website, and by producing books lists and our readers' magazines, is we try to give them choice, but in different ways. Because independence and choosing a book for yourself is very special."

Anyone who has been browbeaten into reading a book on someone else's say-so knows how irritating that can be. Better a bit of mild bullying, though, than to know that the books you're being urged to read are unavailable for you. For the two million people in Britain who are blind or visually impaired, truly useful recommendations come in another form: either through the library itself, via its website, magazines, newsletters, by direct contact with its staff, or from increasingly popular reading groups for the visually impaired, which the library helps to organise. Beech outlines how the library works: "We ask people to choose 15 or so books that they'd like to read that we've got in stock, and then, as they return the books, the system checks against that list to see what next books are available, and we just print a list out and choose them that morning."

A crucial part of this service is played by the Royal Mail. All the books posted out from the National Library for the Blind are delivered free of charge. Although that means about 1000 volumes a day, it's an even bigger deal than it sounds. As Beech explains: "An ordinary family saga is probably five or six volumes in Braille. I think the last Harry Potter was in about 20 volumes of Braille. Vikram Seth is in about 41."

Wouldn't an audio book be simpler to handle? Yes, she says, for some, "but many people are like me, they want to read words for themselves and visualise that person for themselves . . . People who are Braillists are passionate about it, and if you see someone reading a Braille book they will read it as quickly as you or I with our eyes, but they're just very big." So, when a reader goes on holiday, they can have books posted out to them, rather than ditch their companions so they can use their plane seats for storage. Again, the Royal Mail picks up the tab.

It takes one compositor two weeks to create a single volume of Braille. This makes the library's recent initiative, to put the Man Booker shortlist into Braille before the prize day, even more impressive. This year, they translated five of the six in time, luckily including the winner, John Banville's The Sea. As I'm beginning to learn, donators to the library are an invisible army: in this case, Man Booker footed the bill.

But what about young readers? How early can a blind or partially sighted child be introduced to books? For books for the very young, Beech refers me to Clear Vision, in London, who do picture books. "But, as soon as a child becomes a fluent Braillist, and that can be at any age, they just move seamlessly across to us and we talk to them about what they'd like to read and we help them to put together their personal bookshelf, and that's it. They go from there."

For readers of five and over who are partially sighted, the library has begun a new project: a stock of giant-print books. "Giant print," Beech explains, "is in 24 point, for children and young people, so it's much bigger than an ordinary large-print book you'd find in a public library. The demand is just outstripping supply at the moment. So, although we've spent nearly 80,000, 90,000 on books, we've got about 10 titles sitting on the shelves at the moment, and we're buying 10 copies of everything we buy. They are the latest books, but there's also some family favourites - there's some Enid Blyton, Harry Potter, Carnegie Prize books."

The day I talk to Beech, she and her fellow librarians have been ordering giant-print books for Christmas, and there's a smile in her voice. "There's a child said to me once that getting a book in ordinary-size print for Christmas is like giving a child a battery-operated toy without the battery." Making books available to children is clearly one of the most rewarding aspects of her job. That they cost 50 apiece must be one of the more frustrating.

Indeed, talking to Beech it seems as if she feels greater aggravation on behalf of readers than they allow themselves to feel. "Readers are really and truly too grateful for what we can do. Really they should be stamping their feet and saying this is not good enough." She laughs. "There is a campaign called Right to Read, which is campaigning for more books, and I keep saying we're going to have blind and visually impaired people marching on Downing Street!" Sadly, their closest ally there has departed. But as Beech proves, you don't need to be blind to do something useful for those who are.

For more information about the National Library for the Blind, go to

or contact Claire Briscoe on 0161 355 2050.

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