October 3

Well Read

The Washington Talking Book and Braille Library uses inventive outreach initiatives and creative programming to serve those who may not otherwise have access to books.

When Lucash Uniack was in first grade, he loved to learn but hated reading. Because he has a condition in which his eye muscles are weaker than usual, he struggled with tracking words on a page. “I’d get headaches, and I’d read really slowly,” he remembers.

Now 13, Uniack is a voracious reader—and it’s largely thanks to the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library.

The WTBBL in South Lake Union, a program of the Washington State Library and the Office of the Secretary of State, is part of a national network of libraries dedicated to helping anyone unable to read standard print material due to issues such as blindness, visual impairment, deaf-blindness, or a physical disability that prevents holding a book or turning pages.

While most patrons receive their selections for free via the U.S. Postal Service, those who live in the area can visit the library, located inside an old car dealership on the corner of 9th and Lenora. Last year, the library assisted more than 10,300 walk-in visitors.

The most popular items for checkout are the talking books, also known as audiobooks. Patrons receive a digital talking book player to listen to the cassettes. They can also download books from a website that can then be played on mobile devices.

To expand the selection of material available, WTBBL creates its own audiobooks. It’s an intensive process that can take up to a year for one book, but the results are worth it. “Some commercial audiobooks are abridged or done very dramatically, or they don’t have all the content—when we do a book, we don’t dramatize it and we don’t leave anything out, so we’re doing a reading that’s true to the content,” says Danielle H. Miller, director and regional librarian at WTBBL. “When you’re listening to the book, you can use your imagination as much as possible.”

When choosing what books to record, they like to focus on Pacific Northwest subjects, settings, and authors. The Alpine Yeoman, written by Seattle-based mystery novelist Mary Daheim, was a favorite in 2017. Additionally, WTBBL is growing the Spanish language audiobook program and created five new titles in Spanish last year.

Patrons are people of all ages, from babies using board books to senior citizens—in fact, WTBBL serves more than 65 readers who are over 100 years old. The largest demographic falls between 65 and 89, many of whom are dealing with age-related vision loss.

Within that age group is artist Camille Jassny, 68, who has been a patron at WTBBL for more than a decade. In 2006, she started a book club at the Seattle Central Library for low-vision readers. “We pick our books for the year, and then we work with the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library to make sure they can provide them,” Jassny says. Participants get all the books for the year on one cartridge, a convenient service. “Our book club would never survive without them,” she adds.

Jassny, who is well known as a leader in the low-vision and blind community, is often contacted to speak to people who are newly experiencing vision issues. She always asks if they’ve signed up for WTBBL and received their talking book player. “What happens to a lot of people who are newly blind is they get so scared that they can’t read anymore,” she says. “Once they find out there are books they can listen to, it opens up a whole new world.”

For younger patrons, it’s important to open up that world from an early age. A multisensory story time on Fridays at 11am involves singing, tactile elements, and a craft at the end. (The story time is open to the public, so anyone in the neighborhood is welcome to drop by.) Older kids can join a pen pal program that matches them with someone else in the state. “It’s really great because it improves their braille literary or reading and writing skills, and it connects them with another child who has a disability,” Miller says. “It has the impact of being less isolating because they know they’re writing to someone who may be in a similar situation.”

There are also periodic special events for youth—Uniack recently attended a Harry Potter party at the library that involved a scavenger hunt with dementors and dragons, a trivia contest, and chocolate frogs. “The events are really fun,” Uniack says. “They’re mainly for patrons to meet other patrons of the library. It’s been cool to see how other people are dealing with their eye or brain disabilities; that helps everyone else create their own strategies.”

With the motto “That All May Read,” WTBBL continues to find innovative ways to serve the residents of Washington. The library is increasing copies of in-demand books and has been introducing a custom book service for those readers who have a hard time getting enough books or the books they need. Additionally, the National Library Service is looking at a pilot of loaning refreshable braille displays to braille users. Braille circulation is relatively low because physical braille books take up a lot of space—just one book can be dozens of volumes that are difficult to mail—so this move could substantially increase readership.

Currently, WTBBL sends out 1,500 books a day, aided by 18 staff members and around 200 volunteers who donate 15,000 hours a year. It’s a big job—and a necessary one.

“We work really hard to be creative and come up with new services and connect with our patrons and stay ahead of what they need,” Miller says. “Libraries are the great equalizer in our community and in the world. They level the playing field and break down barriers.”

Story by Haley Shapley. Photographs by Joe Mabel, John Pai, Washington Talking Book and Braille Library.

20 million gallons

of water from Lake Union used to level Denny Hill