The largest Braille library in the world sits at the end of a cul-de-sac, down the road from a Motel 6, in a city with only an average number of blind people.
It's mostly an accident of geography that Salt Lake City is home to the world's biggest Braille collection: The city's crossroads-of-the-West location is perfect for a 20-state lending library. But the distinction is also fitting, because in 1931 Utah Sen. Reed Smoot co-sponsored legislation that provided annual federal funding for the books. The Utah State Library for the Blind and Disabled celebrated its 75th anniversary Aug. 7.
Prior to the Pratt-Smoot Act, special books for the blind were limited and random. Today, a blind person can borrow books and tapes and recorders, mailed for free anywhere in the United States. In a cavernous room the size of a supermarket, the Utah State Library for the Blind and Disabled holds 100,000 books that have been transcribed into Braille, including a Bible that fills 23 volumes, each the size of the Salt Lake City Yellow Pages. More than 6,000 shelves also hold 400,000 "talking books," the logical evolution of the program set in motion by Smoot and Sen. Ruth Baker Pratt 75 years ago.
Today, only about 5 percent of people who are blind read Braille, and most of them have been blind from an early age, says the library's Braille production coordinator Jan Sonshine. The tactile language is difficult to learn, especially for those people who lose their sight later in life, says Sonshine, who tried to learn Braille as an adult, even though she is sighted. "By the time I figured out the second letter, I'd already forgotten what the first one was."
Sonshine uses a computer and Braille printing machines to produce a new book about every six weeks, a process that used to take at least nine months on old hand-operated machines.
Because most books are transcribed into Braille by the Library of Congress, the Utah library transcribes mostly locally written books. The same holds true for books on tape, which in Utah are read by volunteers that include inmates at the Utah State Prison. Volunteers also come to the library's offices, in the Utah State Library building on 1950 West, to read and record stories from the Utah's daily newspapers, which are then broadcast on the library's closed-circuit radio station. The library is always looking for more volunteers, volunteer coordinator James Shulfer says. When reader Pat Cox of Salt Lake City retired from the University of Utah's special education department, she was happy to find a volunteer opportunity that could be both helpful and fun. She loved to read to her children when they were little; now she has a new audience.
Every Friday morning she shuts herself inside a recording booth at the library and reads local news stories, obituaries, editorials and the comics. "I pull out all the stops," she says about her weekly rendition of the comic strip "Pickles." "I become Earl and Opal."
Patrons of the library must have a doctor's certification of disability, but over the years this has been broadened to include not just blindness but also disabilities that make it hard to hold a book, and now even learning disabilities such as dyslexia, director Bessie Oakes says.
The library's arsenal of reading aids includes large-print books, descriptive videos, talking computers and computers with "refreshable Braille" keyboards that transcribe computer text. Patrons also can bring in their own documents letters, research, utility bills that can be scanned into the computer. For patrons who have limited sight there is also a machine that enlarges print, as well as a computer that can magnify print so large that one letter of the alphabet fills an entire screen.
It's a laborious process to navigate the Internet this way, but as librarian Lisa Nelson notes, "anything to be able to read."
Daily Herald, Utah