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My Library: The Incredible Resources of the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library

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A few years ago, after I was diagnosed at age 47 with Stargardt disease (juvenile macular degeneration), I discovered that it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to read print. Things which I had always taken for granted such as visually scanning the headlines of a newspaper, reviewing my written financial statements and checking out the onscreen guide on my television set all caused my eyes to strain almost immediately. I could still see the print, but not without considerable discomfort. How would I be able to manage reading an entire book? As a lifelong, avid fiction reader, this was a devastating realization.

Exterior of the Andrew Heiskell Library at 40 West 20th StreetExterior of the Andrew Heiskell Library at 40 West 20th StreetAs someone who had been fully sighted, I was not part of the blind and visually impaired community and had no idea of what to do. Of course, I had seen audiobook CDs at the library, but I had never even heard of Audible.com. Through a bit of initiative and luck, a contact that I made at the New York City Lighthouse told me about the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library (Heiskell Library), 40 West 20th Street, New York, New York, which serves 12,000 patrons who reside in New York City and Long Island. Becoming part of the Heiskell Library community was a significant turning point in my life, and I want to share this wonderful resource with the New York City and Long Island blind and visually impaired community.

My situation is far from unique among adults who become visually impaired. Sandy Padernacht, Facilitator for the Foundation Fighting Blindness' Brooklyn Networking Group, describes her journey to the Heiskell Library in this way: "I came to the Heiskell Library through word of mouth—a relative I think told me about it. Before that, I bought audio books from Amazon.com and then from Audible.com. Now I have been using the resources of the Heiskell Library and downloading books from BARD for about 8 years. I knew I had to learn to listen to books or I had to give up reading. I couldn't see well enough to enjoy what I was reading—it was a strain."

Digital talking book machine and digital book cartridge in blue mailing containerDigital talking book machine and digital book cartridge in blue mailing containerHere are a few facts about the vast resources available free of charge to patrons of the Heiskell Library. According to Caroline Ashby, Chief Librarian, and Ned Richards, Managing Librarian, this branch alone houses approximately 122,000 books on digital cartridge which are all available to library patrons at no cost. Even better, the process to return these digital cartridges could not be simpler. Gone are the days when you needed to stand in line at the post office to mail the books back to the Heiskell Library. You simply turn over the address card in the front slot of the small cartridge and place the cartridge in the nearest mailbox where it is sent free of charge back to the Heiskell Library.

To request a written application be mailed to your home to become a patron of the Heiskell Library, you, a family member or friend can telephone the Information Desk at 212.206.5400, Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Once you are registered as a library patron, a digital talking book player will be mailed to your home. This player is very simple to operate and comes with a 20-minute instructional tutorial. The Heiskell Library offers a monthly in-person training session by a staff librarian who explains the keys of the digital talking book player to a small group of library patrons. You may also receive instruction over the telephone.

There are many ways that a library patron can request access to the more than 40,000 titles available from the Heiskell Library. A library patron, or a family member or friend on their behalf, can request a particular title, books by a particular author or books by subject matter or category (mystery, romance, non fiction, historical fiction, etc.) either by telephoning the Library, by e-mail, by fax, through the Library's online catalog and even by visiting the Heiskell Library's Facebook page. If convenient, books can be picked up at the Library. In most cases, books are mailed to the patron's home, and the digital cartridges fit easily in most mailboxes. Caroline Ashby and Ned Richards note that "many of our patrons receive books automatically through our autoselect process, which selects and sends materials to patrons based on their subject and author preferences, rather than by request".

Here is what Victoria Haghighi, Tenured Associate Professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine who has Stargardt disease, wrote to me when she read my group email about the Heiskell Library: "This sounds like a great resource! I did not know about it at all. Thanks for the information and I will look into it." As Facilitator for the New York City chapter's Stargardt Networking Group, one of my projects is to make sure that every member of the support group is aware of this wonderful resource for reading.

Besides its extensive collection of audio books on digital cartridge, the Library offers many other resources which serve to bring the blind and visually impaired community together for informational and entertaining activities. Ashby and Richards state that: "Outside of the Book Discussion Group and the Fall Technology Fair, the Heiskell Library provides a variety of cultural programming: musical concerts, art lectures and art making workshops, songwriting workshops, one-on-one braille classes, author talks, and informational presentations about a variety of subjects."

I belong to the Heiskell Library's Book Discussion Group which meets on the third Saturday morning of every other month. When I became visually impaired, it became difficult for me to continue attending book groups with fully sighted persons since these groups often select books which are not yet available in audio format. Besides the interesting book discussions, we often talk about our lives and have all become friends. This group and all that the Library has offered me has helped me connect and become part of the visually impaired community, allowed me not to lose my ability to read books, and somewhat lessened my anxiety about all the transitions I am undergoing with the loss of some of my central vision.

Poster promoting Heiskell's talking book servicePoster promoting Heiskell's talking book serviceThe Heiskell Library has made extensive efforts to educate both the sighted and the visually impaired communities about its vast resources. This year alone, increased awareness of the Heiskell Library's free talking book service is being promoted by advertising on stickers in large print books and on small posters displayed on large print and audio book shelves in New York Public Library branches.

Outreach is also a priority for Ashby and Richards. In the summer of 2013, the Heiskell Library participated in events at the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital, the Lavelle School for the Blind, VISIONS Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and the Queens Pride Lions Club. Working with these organizations and schools affords the Heiskell Library the opportunity to both share information about their vast resources and programs and to collect feedback from current and potential library patrons. These extensive awareness campaigns and outreach efforts are consistent with the stated mission of NLS service "...that all may read." Ashby and Richards note that "partnering with others helps ensure that people who need and want to read talking books know that our service is here to support them."

A few final thoughts about transitioning from reading print to listening to audio books. Barbara Wysocki, a retired Director of Children's Services at a Connecticut Library who also has Stargardt disease, explains well this transition: "As a lifelong lover of books in hand, turning to my ears was a transition. I tend to daydream so often that I find I'd missed a whole section and have to rewind. But then I did that when I read print as well. I love that with the new digital books you can go back so easily. I like the fact that you can multitask when I read now. Dishes, clothes folding, answering email, etc."

It is a bit different holding a book in your hand than listening to one. I tend to listen to audio books wearing headphones so I better focus on the material. The idea of learning to focus on listening as opposed to looking at text is a common theme. Sandy Padernacht remarked, "I think you have to learn to listen intently and be ready to go backwards and repeat parts of a book. I have to do this sometimes".

Sandy echoed Barbara's thoughts about multitasking while listening to audio books. Sandy commented that, "A lot of people can't get used to listening because they feel they have to do something else when they listen… either be travelling or something. I began knitting simple things when I listen so that I had something to do with my hands." I, too, began knitting in March and now often knit scarves and simple patterns while I listen to an audio book.

To me, signing up to become a patron of the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library has no downside. At worst, you will never use their many resources; and, at best, you will become part of a community which allows you to continue your lifelong love of reading and connect with other blind and visually impaired people.

Michelle Ritholz, a former Law Librarian, is a volunteer at the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library and serves as Facilitator for the Stargardt Networking Group which is part of the Foundation Fighting Blindness' New York City chapters. She can be contacted at michellerith@gmail.com.

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