A library for all – including people with print disabilities

A print-disabled person is a person who cannot effectively read print because of a visual, physical, perceptual, developmental, cognitive, or learning disability. How do public libraries serve these users? What types of services and books are available to them? How large on average is the number of people with print disabilities?

Photo: Celia LibraryIn the Nordic countries, there are special libraries for the print disabled. The exception is Sweden where accessible materials, such as talking books produced by MTM (Myndigheten för tillgängliga medier), are available in public libraries.

In Finland, we began a project called Library for All to reach out to users who cannot read standard printed texts. Library for All is a joint project between stateowned Celia Library for the print disabled and public libraries in Finland. The aim is to include talking books produced by Celia in the services and collections of public libraries. Through this, we hope to provide equal access to literature and information for persons with print disabilities.

Accessible literature

Celia Library produces and provides literature in accessible formats. Book production is based on Section 17 of the Finnish Copyright Act which gives Celia the right to produce accessible literature. Celia Library’s collection includes talking books, Braille books and tactile books. Talking books account for nearly 99 per cent of the library’s loans.

Talking books are digital audio books which comply with the DAISY standard (Digital Accessible Information System). Based on MP3 and XML, the standard has advanced features in addition to those of a traditional audio book. Users can search, place bookmarks, precisely navigate line by line, and regulate the speaking speed. At the moment, Celia has about 25,000 patrons. It is estimated that at least 5 % of the population could benefit from accessible literature such as talking books. Therefore, we estimate to have at least 250,000 potential patrons in total in Finland.

The number of people with print disabilities is growing. According to the IFLA Manifesto for libraries serving persons with a print disability, there are over 161 million blind and partially sighted people in the world. There are even more people with other print disabilities such as physical, perceptual, developmental, cognitive, or learning disabilities. Altogether, this makes up a very large number of  people who cannot read a conventional book, magazine or website.

In Finland, particularly, we have a large and rapidly increasing number of seniors with visual impairments or other disabilities. Also, dyslexia is more commonly recognized nowadays, and there is a growing need for talking books among young people.

Reaching out to print disabled

The project, Library for All, began in October 2013 and since then we have worked closely with piloting libraries around Finland. At the moment, we have about 40 libraries across Finland working in the project and piloting new services.

Many of the librarians working with the project had previously none or very little knowledge about accessible literature, such as talking books, easy to read literature and tactile books. Presumably this is a consequence of the divergent library field. Services for people with print disabilities have been centered in Celia Library, and although some cooperation with public libraries exists, it has been quite fractional in the past.

Online service 

Librarians also had little knowledge about the print disabled target groups. For example, there have been nearly no experiences with developing library services for dyslectic persons.

The most familiar target group was seniors who cannot read standard printed books and instead, listen to audio books or read large print texts. Consequently, the first goal was to raise the awareness of the library staff, and much work has been done within Celia Library also to make our services more easily accessible to the libraries and patrons.

The project was launched in September, 2014 when the talking book service was introduced to clients in the piloting libraries. The main focus is on online services. Libraries offer guidance and access to the Celia online service where there are 40,000 titles of talking books to download or to listen to online. Some libraries also offer a collection of DAISY talking books.

Towards a more accessible library 

It has been exhilarating to notice that, despite the lack of knowledge about accessibility, librarians working in public libraries do recognize many patron groups that could benefit from talking books, and they are enthusiastic to serve these patrons better. These groups include, for example, the elderly, children who have difficulties in learning to read, the visually impaired, people with intellectual disabilities and people with mental disorders.

During the project, there has also been much discussion concerning the diverse ways of reading. According to our experiences, some professionals in the library field see printed text as the right way to read. Talking books or audio books are sometimes seen as a temporary interphase, for example in the life of a dyslectic person. However, we hope to encourage the view that there are many ways of reading, and talking books and other accessible book formats should be seen as equal ways of reading and learning.

Expanded project

The Library for All project will be expanded to all of the public libraries in Finland in the spring of 2015. The project will end in December 2015. We hope that in the future all public libraries in Finland will offer talking books to people with print disabilities. For the public library, this is a chance to improve accessibility and find new patrons. During the project, we will also develop a checklist tool for accessibility in public libraries.

We hope that the current law concerning public libraries in Finland will, in the future, include mention of accessibility and accessible literature. At the moment, the Library Act states that public libraries should promote the equal opportunities of citizens to education, literature and the arts.

Project manager Celia Library