|Talking Rooms: Walking through History at the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped Headquarters
Conceived and written by Erica Vaughns
Designed by Donna Wasylkiwskyj
Home of Talking Books
The way an organization defines and develops its space reveals much about the program and the people who use it. Such is the case for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
For more than seventy-five years, NLS has served blind and physically handicapped residents of the United States and its territories and citizens living abroad by providing braille and recorded books and magazines, specially designed playback equipment, and music scores in braille and large print at no cost to eligible individuals. Since the 1960s, NLS has carried out its mission from the Taylor Street Annex, a refurbished two story warehouse building located at 1291 Taylor Street, in the northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C.
Several miles away from the main campus of the Library of Congress in a neighborhood of rowhouses and small businesses, NLS has created a work environment reflective of its past yet modernized for future endeavors. Over the years, the building has been modified to accommodate a growing staff and an increasing number of visitors from all over the United States and the world.
In effect, the Taylor Street Annex has become a gradually evolving museum that testifies to the work of NLS staff members, some of whom have served the agency for more than forty years and whose in depth knowledge of libraries and services for blind individuals is incomparable.
The corridors of NLS tell the history of the talking-book program and the people and technology that improve upon it every day. After being greeted by the receptionist, visitors can view and listen to the NLS audio and tactile directory near the entrance, which provides guidance on moving about the facility. As visitors continue through the halls, they will encounter large tactile maps of the Washington metropolitan area and its metrorail system, a sizeable raised-relief globe, and photographs used in NLS public service announcements.
In one hallway a glass display case contains historical objects reflecting the range of recording equipment and accessories that NLS has developed since it introduced the first talking-book machine in 1934. Shown are record players; records that play at 33-1/3 rpm, 16-2/3 rpm, and 8-1/3 rpm; a colorful array of various cassette machine models; and some models that play both records and cassettes. Specialized equipment is displayed: an “easy” player for those with low dexterity, solar panels for rural patrons, pillow speakers of different sizes, amplifiers, breath switches, remote control devices, and headphones. Flexible discs appear in various stages of production, from plastic pellets and polyvinyl chloride sheets to untrimmed pressings and final packages. Also exhibited are a braillewriter, experimental equipment, overseas players, and a large-print scroll reader.
An exhibit entitled “Dook” presents the six winners of the Digital Audio playback Device Competition, which NLS held in 2002 to broaden its creative perspective during development of a new digital talking-book player. Industrial design students submitted entries that were judged by a panel of both sighted and visually impaired NLS staff members and members of the Industrial Design Society of America. Lachezar Tsvetanov’s “Dook” won first place from among 146 entries. The creativity and imagination of the contestants helped NLS to consider a multitude of design concepts for its next generation of audio equipment, which consists of a standard digital talking-book player, an advanced model, and books on cartridges. Five conference rooms in the Taylor Street Annex act as a guide to the organization’s past. Each room is dedicated to the memory of a person who served the blind and physically handicapped community or who helped NLS to provide its services.
Thomas Edison Room
The Thomas Edison Room is located directly beyond the NLS reception area. The space comfortably accommodates up to thirty individuals and is used most often for business discussions and small staff meetings.
Entering the room, one encounters two photographs of the inventor at different ages with his phonograph, the original talking-book machine. The walls of the room are also adorned with framed examples of the varieties of braille used in countries including Ghana, Ireland, Libya, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, among others.
Thomas Alva Edison
(February 11, 1847–October 18, 1931)
“I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others. . . I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent.”
— Thomas A. Edison
Thomas Alva Edison helped put into motion the establishment of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped when he created the phonograph in 1877.
Born the last of seven children, Edison was highly intelligent and inquisitive. However, he was an inattentive student and thus received only three months of formal education. This lack of structured learning did not prevent his intellectual growth. He was a voracious reader, consuming all the knowledge he could through books.
Over the years, Edison founded fourteen companies, including General Electric, which still operates today. He also obtained 1,093 patents; the electric lamp, the electrical conductor, and a telegraph apparatus are some of his best-known inventions. Yet, it was the phonograph that garnered him fame and the title the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” after the location of his New Jersey residence and laboratory.
Edison’s phonograph was the first machine to record sound and play it back. Developed and patented in 1877, the device offered limitless possibilities for the future of books. Of the ten potential uses Edison initially envisioned for the phonograph, one was that it would allow books to speak to people. Years later, in 1906, H.H. Ballard, a librarian from Massachusetts, expressed a similar thought when he recommended the use of the phonograph for blind individuals. However, it was not until 1934 that Edison’s most famous invention helped bring books to blind persons through the talking-book program.
Through the years, Edison and others revisited the design of the phonograph, improving it as technology advanced. In the same spirit, NLS talking books have progressed from phonograph records to analog cassettes to digital flash-memory cartridges.
Helen Keller Room
The Helen Keller Room is a conference area for the director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Adjacent to the director’s office, the room provides a quiet place for small meetings and private conferences.
Redecorated in 2007 with new furniture, the space can accommodate six individuals comfortably. Pictures of many of the regional and subregional libraries that make up the NLS network of cooperating libraries line the walls as a reminder of the more than 100 organizations that circulate some 9 million copies of braille and recorded books to more than 811,000 currently registered users.
(June 27, 1880–June 1, 1968)
“The public must learn that the blind man is neither a genius nor a freak nor an idiot. He has a mind which can be educated, a hand which can be trained, ambitions which it is right for him to strive to realize, and it is the duty of the public to help him make the best of himself so that he can win light through work.”
— Helen Keller
Helen Keller fundamentally changed the way people perceive blindness and an individual’s capacity to achieve in spite of visual impairment or loss of sight.
Born in Alabama on June 27, 1880, with the ability to both see and hear, Keller contracted an unknown illness at nineteen months of age that resulted in her becoming blind and deaf. As a young child, because of her inability to communicate effectively—to understand and be understood—her behavior was erratic and inappropriate, and her family was urged to send her to an institution for care. However, her parents believed she had untapped potential. After reading the success story of another deaf-blind individual, the Kellers sought advice from Alexander Graham Bell, who suggested they speak with Michael Anagnos, director of the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts.
Anagnos assigned Anne Sullivan, a former pupil and teacher at the Perkins School, to work with Keller. Months of tireless effort resulted not only in Keller’s improved behavior but also in her ability to fingerspell and to read braille.
As the years progressed, so did Keller’s education and talents. She became the first deaf-blind person to both enroll in and graduate from an institution of higher learning, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1904. An avid reader, she became a prolific author and published twelve books and numerous articles. She also toured for many years, giving lectures, appearing in vaudeville performances, and fundraising for organizations for the blind such as the American Foundation for the Blind and the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind, now known as Helen Keller International.
In 1961, Keller suffered a series of strokes that left her virtually incapacitated and unable to continue her travels and lectures. On June 1, 1968, she passed away peacefully in her sleep.
Helen Keller left a legacy that has inspired blind individuals and their neighbors around the globe. In many respects, she served as an “ambassador for the blind,” showing that physical limitations need not hinder intellectual pursuits.
The Pratt-Smoot Room is the largest conference room at the Taylor Street Annex and is dedicated to Representative Ruth Sears Baker Pratt and Senator Reed Smoot, who together sponsored the legislation that created the Books for the Adult Blind program, which later became the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
The space can be divided into two individual conference rooms for smaller affairs or opened to accommodate more than 120 people. It is used for conferences, staff meetings, and celebratory gatherings. A forest-themed mural decorates the entire southern wall of the room. When configured into two areas, one room honors Representative Pratt and the second Senator Smoot.
Representative Ruth Sears Baker Pratt
(August 24, 1877–August 23, 1965)
Born in Ware, Massachusetts, on August 24, 1877, to a prominent political family, Ruth Pratt lived during a time when politics was considered a socially unacceptable field for a woman to enter, especially a married woman with five children. Yet Pratt successfully challenged that notion and became the first woman to serve as a member of the Board of Aldermen of New York City and the first woman elected to represent New York in the House of Representatives, serving from 1929 through 1933. She also was a member of the Republican National Committee, a delegate to several Republican national conventions, and president of the Women’s National Republican Club.
By the 1930s, the need of the blind community for access to braille books had grown significantly. Separately, three members of the House of Representatives, including Pratt, introduced bills to allocate federal funds to provide books to blind persons. Of the three bills, only Pratt’s met with a favorable response. However, Congress adjourned for recess before its members could vote on Pratt’s bill.
Senator Reed Smoot
(January 10, 1862–February 9, 1941)
Reed Smoot was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1862 to Abraham Owen and Anne Kristina Smoot. Successful during his formative years, he attended public schools and graduated from college in 1879.
After graduation, Smoot was involved in business ventures related to
mining and agriculture. In 1902 he was elected to the United States Senate and served there until 1933.
During his time in the Senate, Smoot served on several committees and was chair of the influential Senate Finance Committee. He coauthored the controversial Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 and, shortly before his tenure in the Senate was to end, joined with Representative Pratt to introduce the Books for the Adult Blind bill.
In December of 1930, both Pratt and Smoot reintroduced their bills. Both bills passed, and on March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed into the law the Pratt- Smoot Act.
The Pratt-Smoot Act authorized an annual appropriation of $100,000 to the Library of Congress to provide books for blind adult residents of the United States and its territories. This spawned the Books for the Adult Blind program, which evolved into the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. The program has since served blind adults and children in addition to handicapped individuals.
In 1962, the program expanded to provide music-instruction materials and large-print and braille music scores. Circulation has increased from 157 books in 1931 to more than 24 million in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and the patron base has grown to more than 800,000.
The blind and physically handicapped community in the United States is forever grateful for the tireless efforts of Representative Pratt and Senator Smoot.
Senator John Chafee Room
The Senator John Chafee Room is specially designed for business meetings. Because the Taylor Street Annex is several miles from the Library of Congress, conducting meetings with staff members who work in offices on Independence Avenue can be difficult. With the establishment of this conference room, distance is no longer an issue. The space is equipped with the latest teleconferencing technology as well as a ceiling-mounted projector and a laptop computer with web connectivity. Its centerpiece is a conference table that seats fourteen. NLS staff members are now able to meet not only with coworkers in downtown Washington, D.C., but also with patrons, librarians, and others from across the country and around the world.
The walls of the room reflect the eclectic nature of the agency and staff interests. For example, the eight-foot Wall Chart of World History, spanning more than half the length of the north wall, traces human history—prominent figures, notable events, and great inventions—from 4004 B.C. to A.D. 1900. The walls also feature a framed Danish print, Vi läser talböcker, that promotes the talking-book program, framed photographs of NLS patrons, and several awards that NLS has received over the years.
Senator John Chafee
(October 22, 1922–October 24, 1999)
“For individuals who happen to be blind, access to immediate information was restricted by law. That seemed to me to be fundamentally unfair and
—The Honorable John Chafee
John Chafee was born October 22, 1922, in Providence, Rhode Island, the descendant of a long line of prominent statesmen.
After completing his secondary education, Chafee began a military career, enlisting in the Marine Corps and serving during World War II at Guadalcanal and later in Okinawa. After World War II he attended Yale University and Harvard Law School before serving in the Korean War.
Chafee easily transitioned into politics, serving as a member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, as governor of Rhode Island, and as U.S. Secretary of the Navy. In 1976, he was elected U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, serving from 1976 to 1999.
In 1996, during what would be his final term, Senator Chafee introduced an amendment to the Copyright Act, called the Chafee Amendment, to eliminate the need for government and nonprofit agencies to seek permission from publishers or copyright owners to reproduce printed materials in special formats for blind or physically handicapped readers.
Chafee succumbed to congestive heart failure on October 24, 1999. Thanks to his efforts to remove the obstacle of securing copyright clearance for special-format materials, NLS is able to produce books more quickly than before, greatly enhancing service to its patrons. It is a legacy that will benefit talking-book readers well into the future.
Richard Evensen Room
The Richard Evensen Room, designed and created in 2007 in memory of a late NLS staff member, is part of the Office of the Director suite. It serves as an informal meeting place. The small space is equipped with a round table and two upholstered lounge chairs, making it a comfortable spot for working lunches or brief staff conferences. More than fifty black and white photographs are displayed on the walls. The montage offers a glimpse of the workforce and life of NLS during Evensen’s tenure in the 1970s and 1980s
“Richard was the quintessential braille reader, user, and professional. . .
a humanist with obvious talents to generate enthusiasm in all.”
— Frank Kurt Cylke, Director, NLS
Little is known about Richard Evensen’s life before he joined NLS in 1973 as a braille advisor. Born in Massachusetts in 1929, he attended the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, and received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and two master’s degrees, from Boston University and from Catholic University.
At NLS, Richard Evensen was well loved and is remembered fondly for his sense of humor and friendly personality. Moreover, he was known as a hard worker and a widely recognized world authority on braille transcription. Throughout the years, Evensen served NLS in various roles. Between 1974 and 1984, he was a program analyst; between 1977 and 1981, an equal employment opportunity counselor; and from 1984 until his untimely death in 1987, head of the Braille Development Section.
Evensen’s tragic and sudden death in 1987 left a professional and personal void at NLS, but the room named in his memory reminds us of the depth of his contribution to the blindness community, his generous spirit, and his commitment to service.