City library for blind is needed

Exterior of Philadelphia's Library for the Blind. ( David Swanson / Staff Photographer ) 919 Walnut Street, Philadelphia's Library for the Blind, Philadelphia PA 08103 12-08-2010 PBLIND12 State plans to cut back and possibly shut Philadelphia's Library for the Blind and consolidate and transfer the state's library services for the blind and physically handicapped to Pittsburgh is drawing criticism. reporter is Vernon Clark.
Exterior of Philadelphia's Library for the Blind. ( David Swanson / Staff Photographer ) 919 Walnut Street, Philadelphia's Library for the Blind, Philadelphia PA 08103 12-08-2010 PBLIND12 State plans to cut back and possibly shut Philadelphia's Library for the Blind and consolidate and transfer the state's library services for the blind and physically handicapped to Pittsburgh is drawing criticism. reporter is Vernon Clark.
Posted: March 12, 2012

By Daniel Simpson

More than 50 years ago, as second graders, my twin brother and I became patrons of the Philadelphia Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. As soon as we were old enough to walk around the city by ourselves, we regularly took the train from Paoli to the library, where we would browse for hours. Today, we remain avid readers who have also become writers.

In January, Harrisburg began implementing a plan cooked up by the state Department of Education to merge the Library for the Blind here with the one in Pittsburgh. Officials say they can do so without degrading service, but they have provided no convincing evidence or answers to consumers' questions.

Unfortunately, Harrisburg and its consultants didn't think it necessary to involve library users in the process. It wasn't until the plan was in motion that a few of us were invited to meet state officials.

Both of the libraries and both major consumer organizations of the blind want Harrisburg to halt and reevaluate this plan for many reasons.

Besides the lack of consumer input, the plan is based on misinformation. The state, which wants to consolidate lending services in Pittsburgh, seems to believe that all the libraries' audio books have been converted from cassette to digital formats that can be downloaded via the Internet. But many more titles are available solely on cassette, and only about 10 percent of the readership has the ability to download books. This is particularly important because Pittsburgh doesn't want Philadelphia's cassettes, even though the Philadelphia library currently serves about 16,000 patrons, or twice the number in Pittsburgh.

Fifteen Philadelphia library employees are expected to lose their jobs next month in the shift of services to Pittsburgh. If Pittsburgh is forced to hire as many people to handle a 200 percent increase in patrons, the consolidation will save nothing. In fact, statistics from the Philadelphia library suggest it will cost more, not less. Pittsburgh spends $30 more per patron each year than Philadelphia. Multiply that by the thousands of patrons being shifted, and we'll spend close to half a million dollars more per year.

Besides eviscerating the staff and collection, this plan will effectively eliminate "walk-in" service in Philadelphia. Currently, Philadelphia's library serves more than 7,200 walk-ins a year at its Walnut Street location.

Furthermore, giving our books to Pittsburgh to be mailed back to eastern Pennsylvania readers seems silly. Common sense will tell you it's going to take longer to get a book sent from Pittsburgh. And with the prospect of reduced post office service, the delays could become even greater. Harrisburg is minimizing this issue, but how many sighted citizens would settle for such service?

This plan also threatens to make life more difficult for newly blinded veterans returning home, for whom learning to use adaptive technology to download books will not be a priority. What they need is an easy way to listen to books on cassettes and cartridges. Giving away the library's collection and cutting services won't help them or anyone else.


Daniel Simpson lives in Lansdowne. He can be reached at dansimpson@comcast.net.

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