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History of the Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

By Andrew Wilson, SBPH Services and Data Analyst

Library service to the blind began on March 3, 1931, as President Herbert Hoover signed into law the Pratt-Smoot Act, which called for $100,000 to be administered by the Library of Congress to provide blind adults with books.

Nineteen libraries were chosen across the United States to circulate 157 books, which were embossed (Braille or Moon type) under the Books for the Adult Blind Project. Two of those libraries were in Michigan - the Wayne County Library to serve Detroit and Wayne County and the Michigan State Library for the Blind in Saginaw to serve the rest of the state.

In 1933, the Pratt-Smoot Act was amended to include talking books, books that were recorded on vinyl record. Record players needed to be purchased by the nearly 80 percent of the blind population who could not read Braille or Moon type, but during the Great Depression few blind individuals could afford the record player. In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order allowing the Library of Congress to build and distribute record players free of charge to those who needed them.

The service continued through the war years, with unique challenges posed to those librarians serving the blind. The first Conference on Library Services for the Blind was held in November 1951, which helped solve many of these challenges. The 1951 conference also recommended expanding the service to children. On July 3, 1952, the Pratt-Smoot Act was amended, with the word adult removed. By 1954, 20 percent of the talking books and Braille books being produced were for children.

The 1960s were a decade of change for the Books for the Blind program. In 1960, open-reel magnetic tapes were added to the Braille books and talking books on record that the Library of Congress provided. In 1963, the Michigan State Library for the Blind was moved from Saginaw to Lansing, where it occupied the first floor of the Dudley Building on Michigan Avenue. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed Public Law 89-522, which expanded the program to serve individuals who were physically unable to read or handle standard printed materials. By 1968, flexible discs were introduced to replace the bulky and heavy rigid vinyl records, and 1968 also saw the change from open-reel cassettes to standard cassette tapes.

In the 1970s the Michigan State Library for the Blind program expanded with the development of subregional libraries, local libraries designated to provide library service to the blind and handicapped in a specified part of the regional library's service area. Two subregional libraries opened in 1972 - the Grand Traverse Area Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, which served eight counties in northern Michigan, and the Washtenaw County Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, serving Livingston and Washtenaw counties. Eight more subregionals opened across the state between 1973 and 1979.

In 1977, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped instituted a change in the cassette format. The books on cassette began to be recorded at a slower speed (15/16) and use four-track recording, enabling six hours of a book to be recorded on one 90-minute cassette tape.

The Easy Cassette player was introduced in the 1980s. Designed for people who had difficulty operating the standard four-track cassette player, the Easy Cassette player featured automatic playback once the cassette was inserted.

Three more subregional libraries opened in the 1980s, one to serve downtown Detroit, one to serve Macomb County and one to serve five counties in southwest Michigan.

Two advances for patrons were made in the 1980s. The first In-WATS line was established in 1983 to allow patrons to contact the Library of Michigan Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (SBPH) 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In 1989, the Library of Michigan SBPH received its first piece of adaptive technology when Consumers Power Company donated a Kurzweil Reading Machine. This allowed patrons to scan documents, which were then read back by a computerized voice.

In 1990 the Library of Michigan SBPH created the Audio Materials Production Center, which serves as a focal point for the volunteer narration program. This program records materials not available through the National Library Service and concentrates on Michigan-related books and topics.

Two subregional libraries closed in 1990, the Southwest Michigan Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Portage and the Willard Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Battle Creek. The patrons in the ten counties served by these libraries had their talking book and Braille service transferred to the regional library in Lansing.

Library of Michigan Foundation funds were used to purchase a collection of descriptive videocassettes in 1996. The described video collection features popular major motion pictures, with a narrator who describes the visual elements of a movie so that individuals with little to no vision can enjoy the latest Hollywood blockbusters.

Currently the Library of Michigan Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is awaiting the release of digital talking books from the National Library Service, which will allow the user to jump to a specific section of a book without having to fast forward and rewind. Planned for release in 2008, digital talking books will be smaller yet will have more information than can fit on a four-track cassette.

Updated 11/10/2003