Perkins Library: More than meets the eye

A library patron receives audio books from a library staff worker.

Talking books can help those unable to read traditional print due to cognitive or physical disabilities, including blindness.

Linda and Jeanette have a lot in common: both are avid readers, both enjoy discussing the books they’ve read, and both belong to the same group, Women on Wheels, where all the members are in wheelchairs.

“We get together every week, talk about all different things,” Jeanette explained. “It’s nice to connect with people in a similar situation.” 

Both women also have challenges that make reading a printed book difficult, such as hand tremors or severe arthritis. That’s why they both enjoy audio books from the Perkins Library

The Library is a sanctuary for people with disabilities beyond blindness, a fact not widely known by a majority of that population. And so the Library staff is expanding its efforts to reach all people who may benefit from their talking and braille books.

“Audio books are great if you have a disability that makes it hard for you to hold a book, or to turn the pages,” said Director Kim Charlson. That includes adults with multiple sclerosis and children with dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “If your hands are shaking, or you’re a kid who can’t sit still, it’s much easier to listen than to read.”

Jeanette would agree with that. “I can put the headphones on and just relax and listen; I don’t have to hold the book.”

The Perkins Library provides free reading material to anyone with a physical disability or limitation that affects their ability to read. It offers audio players, cartridges, large print books and described videos, in addition to braille material, to 28,000 current patrons.  Its affiliation with the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress gives it access to millions of books and videos. 

“The Perkins Library works beautifully for me,” said Linda. “I look up a book in the Library catalog and if it’s available in the format I need, I put it in my book basket and sign in with my Perkins code and password. I go back to my book basket and check "Rush" which allows me to get up to three books in the mail in two to three days. It's fantastic!”

Adds Jeanette, “I love that the catalog is so detailed, it can tell you if a book has strong language. I’m not a fan of strong language.”

And though Charlson and her staff already do a fair amount of outreach to the community, it’s difficult to connect with everyone who is eligible for their services. 

“It’s hard to identify people who are losing their vision – they’re already marginalized by society,” Charlson said.

It’s even harder to ferret out the people with other reading-related conditions. So she works to connect with teachers, professionals who work with people who are impaired, parents and special education professionals. She thinks it’s important to give anyone with a reading disability a connection through books and reading.

Young readers are especially vulnerable, as the ability to read is critical for learning.

“When children are first learning to read, their books have large type and only a few words to a page,” said Charlson. “Making the leap to smaller print books can be a psychological barrier to reading.” She said that the large print books offered by the Library may help to ease that transition, so she has a dedicated staff member who works with young readers.

Additionally, “some kids are auditory learners,” explained Charlson, which is why the Library provides them audio books as well.

Ann Marie, the mother of 8-year-old twins, heard about the Library from a friend whose now college-age child used the service early on. Ann Marie’s son has dyslexia, and she described the opportunity to borrow thousands of audio books as “amazing!”

“Both of my kids have always loved reading,” she said, explaining that she reads to them all the time. “We’ve logged hundreds of hours on the players from the library.” The audio books give her son the chance to read independently, which she said has led his teachers to comment on his excellent reading comprehension and vocabulary.

She loves that there is no waiting in line, unlike at their town library – they simply choose their books online and download them in minutes onto a thumb drive, which they then insert into the digital player. Her son Ty concurs that the service is well worth it.

“You just type in the author or the title, and find books you like,” Ty explained. “It only takes 10 minutes to download, and you have a book!”

Currently, the Library has 15,000 players, portable machines that play the custom digital cartridges holding the audio books. Recently, it launched the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) Mobile App for iPhones and other digital devices that will make downloading even easier.

“We want to appeal to the youth audience, the people who feel awkward using a player, or those who want to listen inconspicuously,” said Charlson.

To qualify for Library services, prospective patrons need only fill out a short application, indicating the disability that makes them eligible. In the case of a reading disability, they will need a signature from a medical doctor validating the disability. All other applicants need only a certified authority, such as a case worker, social worker or other medical or public service professional, to deem them eligible.

Once they are approved, patrons can borrow readers and cartridges for free by making a request. Items will be mailed to them, with a prepaid return envelope included, making borrowing simple. Or, if they prefer, patrons can walk into the Library and make their request in person; about a dozen people a day choose that option.

Jeanette finds the return process simple, especially for someone who has difficulty using her hands. “I don’t even need to write the address; the label is already on the envelope!”

Linda concurs. “I have been using the Perkins Library for about five years now,” she said. “It has been one of the greatest services I have ever had the pleasure of using and has added much happiness to my life.”

Read more about: Families, Perkins Library