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Lumberjacks and Librarians: Mary Ellen Gabias on the Power of Accessible Public Library Service

Monday, December 3, 2018

The following talk was prepared by Mary Ellen Gabias, President of the Canadian Federation of the Blind, for the funding announcement with the Honourable Carla Qualtrough at the North Vancouver District Public Library on November 14, 2018.

In his lively history "The Library Book," David Obee explained what it is about librarians that makes them heroic figures for me. Librarians were on the British Columbia frontier bringing access to books, newspapers, and other information for the loggers, trappers, and fishers who would otherwise have been isolated. Later, in the larger cities, it was librarians who helped immigrants and their children learn to read and write in English or French by providing them with books, a welcoming place to read them, and warm encouragement to become not only basically literate, but well-read.

Librarians quietly and consistently helped generations raise their expectations by offering access to the printed word. Heroes, beyond a doubt!

As a young blind child, I went with my sighted brothers to our branch library. I breathed in that library smell, I touched shelf after shelf of books, and wondered if it would be possible to read all those books and know what could be known. And I felt horrible, because none of those books – none of that mind-expanding knowledge – was for me.

The nice library ladies felt badly, too, so badly that I got the feeling they were relieved when I left. The public library was the only place in the world where I felt sorry for myself and completely unwelcome.

I didn't blame the nice library ladies. At the time, library services for blind people were completely separate from the mainstream, and the production methods for the books I read were completely detached from the production methods for print.

For example, if they were produced at all, braille books were published at least two years after the print edition of a new book was released. Many braille books had to be hand-copied in a process that bore more resemblance to a monk handwriting manuscripts than to anything Mr. Gutenberg invented. Audio books were vinyl LP records used only by the blind.

Libraries for the blind all over the world were separate and necessarily segregated places that sent books to readers through the mail. Their collections were pitifully small compared to those in most public libraries. Although a borrower could request a specific book, the library often did not have it, so the selector would choose another book for a borrower and mailed that instead.

Getting a book in the mail from the library was a little like opening a Christmas present. You never knew what to expect. The surprises were often wonderful. When they weren't, getting a replacement often took two weeks which was a very long time to go without anything to read.

When I immigrated to Canada in 1989, a friend who worked at the Fredericton Public Library in New Brunswick invited me to get a library card. I was surprised by her encouragement and wondered why she thought I would bother. That was my first experience with a welcoming public library. The shelves contained commercially-produced cassette books as well as specially produced books for readers with print disabilities. I began to think that, just maybe, the public library had a place for me.

Now, the people at the Rutland Branch of the Okanagan Regional Library deepen my conviction that I can be welcome in a Canadian public library. I have come to respect what a competent and caring librarian adds to my reading life.

The Canadian Federation of the Blind has always advocated for increased access to the printed word. Over time, our understanding of what that requires and of what is possible have changed and grown. Our goal, which was beyond our imagination a few decades ago, is the complete and total integration of blind people into public library services.

But we haven’t achieved that integration, yet. We need bridges. NNELS is helping to construct those bridges and this federal grant is helping to build them faster.

I am delighted about every book NNELS produces or acquires, but my real sense of hope and joy comes from three aspects of the NNELS philosophy.

First, NNELS is building capacity by leveraging the skills of libraries across Canada and drawing on the collective experience of the user community. By distributing aspects of services to people with print disabilities across the system, NNELS is helping to deepen the overall knowledge base and to create a  resilient service structure. This philosophy has already led to employment opportunities for people with print disabilities which we applaud and trust will continue.

Second, through publisher education and emphasis on building accessibility into the structure of electronic books produced in Canada, NNELS is helping to raise awareness and to make it more likely that commercial electronic publications will be accessible out of the box. Accessibility works best when it's built in as part of the foundation; it can be devilishly difficult when it's added as an afterthought.

Digitization, electronic publishing, optical character recognition – all those processes that are challenging traditional library methods – are continuing to strengthen the hope of the CFB and all blind people and others with print disabilities. In theory, every book that is born digital can also be born accessible. A Braille reader can now purchase an iBook or a Kindle book on the day that it is published and have a reasonable expectation of being able to connect a Braille display to a cell phone and read. Compare that to the two-year average wait we endured in the past and our profound excitement is easy to understand!

Finally, because public libraries are being encouraged to see providing access as part of their core mission, people with print disabilities will be increasingly able to come to their public library for help in accessing library collections and learning how to read with technology. Librarians are doing more than picking out audiobooks from their shelves: they are burning books to CD from online collections, helping patrons load books onto electronic book readers, and teaching people how to use ebook and audiobook services the library employs for its print-abled borrowers. This last role necessarily requires that librarians as a group push digital content vendors to be much more accessible than they currently are. We hope and trust that librarians will increasingly become welcome fellow advocates in our quest for accessibility.

Because NNELS is striving along with the community for the full integration of people with print disabilities into the mainstream of library services, Canada is creating a new paradigm that is leading the world in a quiet, but truly revolutionary, way.

In short, the NNELS revolution is returning librarians to the role they occupied when this country was frontier territory. We readers with print disabilities are among this century's lumberjacks and immigrants, and we love that librarians are holding open the doors to a world of full and fair access to the books and ideas so important to all of us.