Clearing the record on libraries for the blind

Changes in library services for the blind and physically handicapped are aimed at reaching all Pennsylvanians with special needs. Amenities that patrons have come to rely on will still be available. DAVID SWANSON / File Photograph
Changes in library services for the blind and physically handicapped are aimed at reaching all Pennsylvanians with special needs. Amenities that patrons have come to rely on will still be available. DAVID SWANSON / File Photograph
Posted: May 14, 2012

After reading erroneous editorials about the realignment of services for the blind and physically handicapped, I felt the need to correct the record.

Each year, $2.7 million is appropriated in the state budget to the Free Library of Philadelphia and its western counterpart to provide no-cost, accessible library services to the nearly 160,000 citizens throughout the state who are blind or physically handicapped; however, statistics show that only 12 percent of Pennsylvanians use these services.

New and improved technology offered the opportunity to reevaluate how services are offered and allowed us to ensure that the intent of the program — serving the entire state — is met.

This initiative began during the previous administration. I reconsidered the plan at the request of those in Philadelphia, but concluded that moving forward with the realignment was in the best interest of all Pennsylvanians.

Services are not being reduced or eliminated. A restructuring of how services are provided is taking place, but patrons will not be negatively impacted.

When this transition is complete, library patrons will have access to the same materials as in the past. If a book is not available at the walk-in location, or if patrons do not have the equipment to play audiobooks from a flash drive, cassettes will be mailed to them at home — exactly what patrons have experienced for decades.

Under the plan, the Pittsburgh location will handle all cassette mailings. Patrons will not experience any disruptions, and the same number of titles will be available.

The Philadelphia and Pittsburgh offices will continue to offer walk-in service, with patrons able to receive a digital copy of a title of their choice.

The Philadelphia location will provide braille materials to the entire state, and will implement an aggressive outreach plan to boost awareness of the services to eligible, nonparticipating citizens in each of the state’s 67 counties.

It is more effective to handle audiobooks from one location while centralizing outreach efforts from the other.

To be clear, here is what will not change:

The Philadelphia location will not be dismantled, and there will be no reduction in Philadelphia’s extensive braille collection. It will still receive all braille books produced by the National Library Service. All titles will still be available in the Philadelphia region without interruption.

Patrons who prefer audiobooks on cassette will still have that option. The major change is that all cassettes will now be mailed from Pittsburgh.

The toll-free telephone number for the Philadelphia area will remain unchanged, as will websites.

Furthermore, books are not headed for the trash. All materials and equipment provided through the regional libraries are the property of the Library of Congress. The National Library Service procedure for books no longer needed will still be followed. Extra, duplicative materials and equipment not needed in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh will be sent to a center in York County, according to processes established by the service.

This transition plan was to have been implemented in July 2011, but concerted, intentional, and unnecessary actions by many in Philadelphia have delayed this process for too long to the detriment of the thousands of Pennsylvanians who are not aware of these services.

It is imperative that this realignment of services take place to ensure that the financial investment of state taxpayers benefits the entire state, not just the areas where these libraries are.

E-mail Ron Tomalis at ra-educationsecretary@pa.gov.

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