Visions Received at the Talbot County Free Library

by Bill Peak

Not too long ago, the director of Maryland's Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (otherwise known as the “LBPH”) drove over from Baltimore to talk to our staff about the services her institution can offer citizens of Talbot County. Such presentations are a regular feature of our work at the library. To make sure we are giving our communities the best service possible, librarians and library associates in Maryland are required to take at least 90 hours of in-house training every five years. But despite the training, despite having referred any number of patrons to the LBPH over the years, I have to admit I had never sat through an entire presentation on all that that remarkable institution has to offer. And it brought back memories.

My grandmother was legally blind. She lived by herself in a hotel in downtown Louisville, and, once a month, my parents would put me on a bus and send me down there to help her run errands and perform chores. At night, after “Bonanza” was over, Mimi would make up a bed for me on her living room's nubby couch, magically lower her own bed out of a closet, and then turn on one of the long playing records she received from Kentucky's LBPH. Back in those days, those first recorded books seemed all to be voiced by the same fellow, a guy who believed it was his job to read everything placed in front of him, regardless of subject matter, in the same boring monotone. But Mimi never complained. As a young woman, before she lost her sight, she had ridden a mule up into Kentucky's hills and hollows to teach barefoot children how to read, and she wasn't about to turn her back on the extraordinary visions that skill provides just because some fellow in a recording studio somewhere didn't know how to declaim properly.

I'm sure anyone who has ever spent a long drive listening to one of our library's audio books knows why. Charles Osgood captured their appeal perfectly when he was asked which he preferred, radio or television. “Radio,” he answered without hesitation, “because the pictures are so much better.” When you read, or when you listen to someone read, it is the collaboration that takes place between your neural network and the author's that creates art. With a word here, a sentence there, a writer builds a sort of scaffolding, but you are the one that puts flesh upon that scaffolding's bones, gives it a background, paints in the colors, and, finally, places everything in motion. Together, you and the author build a theatre of the mind.

And it is the mission of our nation's libraries for the blind and physically handicapped to bring that theatre to one and all regardless of physical challenge. In my grandmother's day, an LBPH accomplished this by shipping their patrons big, boxy record players, their utilitarian black surfaces peppered with braille. But today's patrons receive elegant little digital talking book players that are about the size of, well, a book! And they are so user-friendly. The buttons on these machines speak when depressed, explaining their function. The player's bookmark feature remembers where the user was on any disk inserted, no matter how long it's been since that recording was last played. And nowadays, thankfully, the books are voiced by people who understand that recitation is an art. Somewhere up in heaven, Mimi is smiling.

Oh, and there's one more bit of good news. People like my grandmother will no longer have to travel to Baltimore to receive many of the on-site services also available from Maryland's LBPH. Thanks to a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, both branches of the Talbot County Free Library now have “ADA Workstations.” These workstations have electric height-adjustable tables, computers with 27-inch monitors, and large, tactile keyboards. This easy-to-use equipment allows visually impaired patrons to turn any printed material they want to read—an electric bill, a rental agreement, a tax form—instantly into audio. Or, if they prefer, the machine will magnify the material to a size they can decipher. The workstation's computer, aptly called MAGic®, will allow them to use a PC as well or better than someone with 20/20 vision. So if someone you know, due to a vision problem, misses the big, wide world of reading, please, please, call us at 410-822-1626 and make an appointment to bring them in and let the library begin the happy task of re-illuminating their world.

I can't remember where or when, but I well remember coming across the announcement several years ago that an unusual burial had been discovered by paleontologists working on an early human site in southern Europe. What made this particular grave interesting was that it contained the body of a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old boy who suffered from a congenital distortion of the spine that would have rendered him incapable of fending for himself or even walking unaided. Yet somehow he had survived to a relatively advanced age and received a proper burial. The scientists who wrote up the report concluded that the band of early humans the boy lived among must have cared for and loved him (desiccated pollen grains from a type of wild daisy were found spread over the child's body). The researchers saw these signs of care and respect for someone incapable of offering physical assistance in the group's hunting and gathering activities as an early sign of civilization. So do I.