An Interview with Karen Keninger

August 7, 2012

Karen Keninger became director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., in March. She is the first person who is blind to direct the Braille and talking-book program. Keninger is former director of the Iowa Department for the Blind, a provider of vocational rehabilitation and independent-living programs and library services for blind and visually impaired individuals. She spoke with American Libraries in June about how her she plans to turn her lifelong patronage of the NLS to the advantage of its other users.

American Libraries: Tell us briefly about the services offered by your agency.

KAREN KENINGER: Our mission is to provide reading materials for people who can’t read standard print because of a visual or a physical disability or certified reading disability. The National Library Service is responsible for providing the equipment that our materials play on and the audio materials—and also Braille—that we provide to a network of 56 libraries and some subregional libraries. Libraries in the states distribute those materials to eligible individuals throughout the country.

Does your personal experience present special opportunities for programs offered for disabled readers?

Yes, I think it does. I’ve been using the National Library Service materials—books and magazines, both audio and Braille—since I was 7 years old, so it gives me a very deep and broad patron perspective that I would not have if I had not actually been a blind person using those materials all of my life. Because of that, my focus is very much on patron service.

Does today’s emphasis on online services present new opportunities for individuals who are blind or visually impaired?

It’s a double-edged sword. There are more materials available, but the experience and the skill that a blind person needs to access them is not insignificant. It’s much more difficult, or at least more complex, to use a computer with a screen reader, for example, than it is for someone to use it with a mouse. They have a much steeper learning curve. That means that some blind people are able to take advantage of all the online services that are out there, but the majority are not really able to do that in an effective way at this point, partly because many of the people we serve are elderly and their computer-using days are over, if they ever used computers at all.

Where would a blind or visually impaired individual go to learn how to use the online services?

There are rehabilitation agencies and independent living agencies throughout the country where that training can be acquired, although it’s not universally accessible because you have to be looking for a job in order to qualify for many of those services. And if you’re not looking for a job, then it becomes more difficult. That’s an area that really needs a lot more work.

You transitioned the state library program in Iowa from analog to digital talking books and players. How far along are other states in this area?

I would say probably 80%–90% done at this point. There are people still using cassettes, and they’re still using the cassette players that we have had for the past 30-odd years. But we are getting more and more people transitioned to the digital talking book systems, which are much better than the cassette systems. Some people just don’t like to change, and there’s still much material available on cassette that’s unavailable in the digital format because we haven’t been able to transfer it all. So some people want to use that as well.

How have technologies improved over the years for blind and visually impaired people?

The cassette players that we had were much better than the records we had before that, because the cassettes actually held up better than the records. But the system was complicated. You had to put the cassette in, listen to it for an hour and a half, and then turn it over and listen to it again. Then you had to turn it over again and flip a five‑selector switch to listen to the next two sides. There were four tracks on the cassette. This was kind of complicated, particularly for elderly people who had trouble understanding that concept.

The audio quality of the cassette machines, although it was pretty good, did get worse as the cassette got older. The new player is very simple. You just put a cartridge in. It only goes in one way. You push it in and it’ll start the machine. You can actually do it with your elbow. It’s designed so that it’s pretty easy to use if you have severe arthritis or other kinds of disabilities that make it hard to handle something. The sound quality is fantastic. The speaker is better. The digital recordings are much clearer. So for people with some hearing loss or even people who don’t have hearing loss, the sound quality’s a lot better.

How is your funding situation?

We received additional funding to do the digital transitions, and that helped to purchase the machines, but the fact that our budget is limited, as everyone’s is, means that we are only able to produce about 2,000 books a year, which is only a tiny fraction of the number of books published in a year. We are not able to convert all of the old cassette books that we had, a lot of which were classics and really good stuff, into digital format as quickly as our patrons want because it is expensive. Our network libraries are funded primarily by the states and LSTA grants, and they are suffering significantly from the cutbacks in state funding.

What can individuals do to help you?

They can lobby their legislators for additional funding for their state libraries, because most of our programs are located in state libraries. At the national level, we are funded through the Library of Congress, which is a legislative issue.

Last year NLS celebrated 80 years. How has time changed what is offered by the agency?

When we started out in 1931, we had Braille and that was all. And then in 1937, I believe, the long-playing record was actually developed for the National Library Service. That’s an interesting little detail for those of us who are old enough to remember. My grandmother’s 78 rpm records didn’t play long enough, so the NLS developed the long-playing record, which was your 33⅓ rpm. We had them as albums when I was a teenager. And then of course we moved from those to smaller records, and then eventually to the cassettes and now to the digital. The number of materials that we are able to produce now is, I believe, significantly more than we could in the early days. There were fewer books that we were able to produce then, judging by the number that we have. So I’m kind of guessing at that, but it looks like we made progress in that regard.

Another thing that changed is that in 1996 the copyright law was amended so that we were able to do the work that we do without having to request permission for each book from each publisher. That’s called the Chafee Amendment, and it allows us to produce books in a specialized format without having to get permission from American publishers. That has helped us tremendously. It’s really saved a lot on the workload for both the publishers and us.

So it seems as though publishers have come a long way in determining that this is an important service.

I think that they have. The reason is partly that my predecessor had always been very, very careful to make sure that we did not in any way violate our trust with regard to the work that we do, so that publishers could very much count on us to keep the materials that we produced safe for use only by qualified people. That’s a very important thing for the publishers, and we’ve been very careful to maintain that.

Do you have any favorite library or librarian stories that you’d like to share with our readers?

Our regional librarian in Iowa when I was growing up was named Florence Grannis, and she believed very strongly in the work that we do. She actually started that library. She made sure that, whatever a person asked for, she found a way to get it for them. When I was in high school, I asked her to send me everything she had about Russia. I’m not exaggerating when I say I got a truckload of books in Braille about Russia so that I could do some social studies project. I always appreciated that—even though my mailman probably didn’t—and I’m not sure my dad did either, because he had to haul them back. The thing was, she made that all available to me. She didn’t say, “Here’s one or two books that you can have.” She said, “You can have everything you want, everything you need.” That’s a legacy that I hoped and tried seriously to continue when I was librarian in Iowa, and want to find ways to continue here as well, so that the people that we serve can have whatever they need.

How can librarians assist your agency in spreading the word about the services you provide?

One of the best referrals that the network libraries get is from our local librarians. The people who are library users to begin with are our most avid users when they stop being able to use their local public libraries. They have been readers and now they can’t really see the standard print. So then they’ll go to read all the large print that the library has. When they lose the ability to do that, they’ll go through the library’s audio collection. Meanwhile, we’ve got probably 70,000 or 80,000 titles available in audio format that we would be happy to mail to them.

So if a local librarian sees that someone is dealing with a visual or hearing impairment and can refer that person to the regional library, that would be a tremendous service. You can find us on the web at www.loc.gov/nls. All the regional libraries are listed there, as well as all of our services and lots of other information.