The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) is a free program administered by the Library of Congress that produces and distributes books in accessible formats -- notably digital audio and braille -- to persons with print disabilities.
But the NLS also publishes braille sheet music and accessible editions of popular magazines, and manufactures the playback equipment one needs to listen to books. To comply with US copyright laws, the NLS must limit book access to readers with documented disabilities. In the past, it has done this by recording books at slower speeds. It now uses the DAISY format -- an e-book with embedded navigation. Read more...
The NLS collection has over 400,000 titles. Each year, its 113 regional and sub-regional libraries circulate about 30 million books to nearly one million disabled readers.
The Pratt-Smoot Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Hoover in 1931, provided $100,000, to the Library of Congress to record books for blind and visually impaired adults. The program was expanded in 1952 to include children's books. In 1962, the NLS added accessible music materials, and four years later, extended eligibility to persons with physical and print disabilities.
NLS Reading Resources
Through the NLS, qualified readers can access:
- The world's largest library of over 15,000 braille books
- Nearly 70,000 audiobooks including bestsellers, classic novels and poetry, popular nonfiction, biographies, and how-to books
- More than 70 popular magazines in braille or digital audio, including: Good Housekeeping, National Geographic, the New York Times Book Review, Playboy (braille only), and Sports Illustrated
- A 20,000-title music collection including braille and large-print scores and textbooks, self-instructional and music appreciation cassettes, and specially produced periodicals such as Popular Music Lead Sheets
- Thousands of electronic Web-Braille books, magazines, and musical scores accessible on a password-protected site
- Free loan of special playback equipment necessary for listening to NLS digital audiobooks.
Another way the NLS promotes blind literacy is serving as the US certifying authority for braille transcription and proofreading.
National Library Service Eligibility
To be eligible for NLS services, readers must be residents of US, its territories and insular possessions, or US citizens living abroad, and have a disability that prevents one from being able to read standard print. These include:
- Legally blind -- visual acuity of 20/200 or less with best correction or visual field no greater than 20 degrees
- Physically disabled
- Reading disabled due to an organic dysfunction.
Disability documentation from a certifying authority is required. An authority may be a physician, ophthalmologist, registered nurse, occupational therapist, rehabilitation counselor, teacher, librarian or other individual the NLS deems qualified.
Institutions such as nursing homes and schools for the blind are also eligible to borrow NLS materials, as are public and private schools where disabled students are enrolled.
Honorably discharged US veterans receive preferential treatment in all NLS lending practices, such as the distribution of the latest playback equipment.
How to Borrow NLS Materials
Those who meet the eligibility criteria can apply for service using the Find a Library tool on the NLS website or by calling 888.657.7323 to locate the nearest library. Applicants submit a written form and proof of disability.
Network libraries try to send playback equipment within three business days after certifying an application. An initial shipment of books and catalogs is sent within five days. New members can also select accessories such as headphones and specify options for receiving books.
Contact your network library by phone, email, fax, or postal mail to borrow materials.
Developing a relationship with the NLS library staff is vital: phone orders are processed immediately, while the default "turnaround" service may prevent shipment till other books are returned.
You can search the NLS online catalog for books, find magazines in accessible formats, and explore NLS's music and foreign language collections.
The NLS annually adds 2,500 titles to its collection, announcing new additions in its bimonthly publications, Braille Book Review and Talking Book Topics. Both publications are available in braille, cassette, and large print and can also be read using a screen reader on the NLS website.
Professionally narrated Talking Books, unlike volunteer-read recordings from institutions such as Learning Ally, are often a better choice for reading assigned classics such as novels. Voice quality and proper enunciation can increase reading comprehension and overall enjoyment.