Costs imperil Phila. library for impaired

Posted: November 23, 2007

When artist and teacher Carol Saylor began losing her vision, she felt the world closing in around her.

Then she discovered the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. From that moment, more than 20 years ago, Saylor's universe began to lighten and expand.

The Center City library's staff connected her with books, for sure, but also began to map out the network of services that could help her navigate her darkening world.

"It was the most wonderful thing," said Saylor, 70. "That's where it all started for me. I learned mobility. I used talking books. I learned Braille. I use their Braille collection. I went to Penn and learned computers. I've had a fabulous life as a blind person - and they were the beginning. They started me out."

But now a pall has been cast over the little-publicized library, at 919 Walnut St.

Its landlord, Associated Services for the Blind, wants a big rent increase and has even mentioned eviction, city officials say. Funding from the state has been flat for at least six years - even as operating costs and demand for services have increased dramatically. The library's longtime director, Vickie Collins, plans to retire at the end of this year, increasing uncertainty among staff and patrons.

Yet, through it all, the library continues to provide what for many is an absolute lifeline to the world. Staff members are eager to expand their client base, pointing out that the library is not only for the sightless, but also for anyone who has reading difficulties - whether as a result of macular degeneration, physical handicaps or learning disabilities, such as dyslexia.

"A lot of people hear 'Library for the Blind' and think, 'I don't know a blind person,' " said Patricia Shotzbarger, library supervisor. "But we serve stroke victims, for instance. There's nothing wrong with their eyesight, but they can't hold a book, turn the pages, and read standard print.

"We have quadriplegics and paraplegics. It goes to a print disability as opposed to a visual disability. The other group that we also serve are learning disabilities, reading disabilities - something like dyslexia."

The library - with a circulation of more than one million books a year, nearly 15 percent of the Free Library of Philadelphia's total - has a vast collection of audio books on special cassettes, courtesy of the federal government. Ditto books in Braille. In fact, the library houses one of the largest of the nation's 23 public-library Braille collections. The library provides Braille services for the entire state and has contracts to provide such books to West Virginia and Delaware.

More than 15 percent of the nation's Braille library circulation is generated by the Philadelphia collection, library officials say.

Funding for books and magazines on cassette and in Braille comes from the federal government, which supports similar libraries for the blind throughout the country. In addition, the library is granted free postal service, a subsidy that makes it possible to circulate library materials through the mail.

The library also has a substantial collection of large-print books, which are acquired with private money.

The state pays for all operational expenses, however, including salaries and other day-to-day expenditures. And the state has maintained its funding at $2.9 million for at least six years.

The flat funding has forced the library, which is staffed by city employees and administered by the Free Library, into many creative accommodations. Considerable use has been made of compact shelving to save space, for instance. Staff has been cut, with technology employed to make up the difference.

But many at the library feel they have reached the limits of the possible.

For one thing, the library's lease is month to month (after a 10-year lease expired) because Associated Services for the Blind has demanded a rent increase amounting to $1.8 million, or 40 percent, over the life of a new 10-year lease, according to documents obtained by The Inquirer.

ASB's president, Patricia C. Johnson, declined to comment on the library, its operations or its lease, and a spokeswoman would say only that the library was one of 12 tenants in the building. Library officials also would not comment on lease negotiations.

The Library for the Blind has been in the building as long as ASB. In 1972, Delaware County Orphans Court ruled that ASB could use $1.3 million in charitable trust money to acquire and renovate the property to house its services - and those of the library.

The potential rent increase has led library officials to at least consider eliminating some of the collection, moving some services from Walnut Street, or even eliminating services.

A spokesman for the state Department of Education said it was "a little early" to begin discussing next year's budget.

Elliot L. Shelkrot, head of the Free Library, said, "The biggest issue is how we are going to get the state to get back on track and provide the funding. This administration has not seen fit to raise that budget, which is crazy. The user community has just got to be more vocal."

Glenn R. Miller, executive director of the Pennsylvania Library Association, a state lobbying and service group, called the extended flat funding for Philadelphia and its sister library in Pittsburgh "enormously frustrating."

"It's insane not to see this as an essential service," he said, noting that cost increases, such as salaries and the federal move to digital media, were beyond control of the library.

The spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Michael Race, said the state was "committed to coming up with" $250,000 next year to cover some software costs associated with the digital transition.

State House Speaker Dennis M. O'Brien (R., Phila.) said the time had come for a broader state increase. O'Brien, who saw an exhibition of Saylor's sculpture at the library this year and spoke with the artist, said he would raise the subject of increased aid in Harrisburg.

"I will get this issue revisited," O'Brien vowed. He pointed out that use of the library was growing - and would continue to expand as more potential users became aware of its services. "Our senior citizens certainly can benefit wonderfully," O'Brien said.

Saylor, whose show was organized by the library at its Touch Gallery through National Exhibits by Blind Artists, said such exhibitions were simply one more library service. Along with its Braille programs, a GED program, computer access for the visually impaired, and literacy and adult education programs, the library is, she said, essential.

"I wasted five years trying to figure out what I was going to do, and the library was there all that time," she said. "It all started here."

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com.

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