Karen Keninger, director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in the Library of Congress, discussed new technological developments in the interview excerpted below.
What are your responsibilities as the Director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped?
The National Library Service (NLS) program has approximately 120 staff members and so part of my job is to oversee the whole program, including the staff in Washington, D.C. And then we have about 100 libraries throughout the country that are cooperating with us to provide our services. So, my job is to oversee that entire program and to look at what’s coming up in the future and plan.
Can you describe the career path that led you to this position at the Library?
I began my career path toward this position when I was seven years old and got my very first books in braille from one of the cooperating libraries in the National Library Services network. That was the beginning of my love for this program, which now serves over half a million Americans who can’t read standard print because of visual or physical disabilities.
The NLS recently organized the first-ever braille literacy conference. What were the goals and outcomes of that conference?
The braille program needs to be modernized. Toward that end, the conference brought together about 100 people from various corners of the braille world who looked at the whole issue of braille literacy from a number of angles. The goal was to have this group tell us what they thought NLS particularly, and the world of braille in general, should be doing to carry it forward into the 21st century. We spent three days talking about it from a number of different angles and we got, what I believe, were some very solid recommendations from the group.
What were some examples of the recommendations given?
One of the top recommendations was that NLS should provide a braille e-reader for people who could use it throughout the country. Braille e-readers are expensive right now and they’re not available to the average reader that we have because of the cost and NLS is not in a position to do that at the moment. But as the technology improves and changes … we will be able to look at that kind of service.
When you were first named director, you said that one of the goals of NLS was to enhance the technologies available to NLS patrons. Are there any technologies that NLS is working on that may be available in the future?
One of the things that we’ve done is develop an app for the iPhone/iPad/iPod family. With that app, you can read our braille and audio books. With the braille books, you need a braille display to go with it, but I think the mobile apps are going to be very popular.
You also said you want to increase NLS readership by 20 percent in five years. What is NLS doing to reach that goal?
One of the things that I think is going to increase the readership is the apps for the iPhone and the Android systems. I think that’s going to attract a group of people who are currently not using our programs because they’ll be able to download directly from our BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Download) website. We also are working with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and we will be helping them to distribute a currency reader as part of a project that they have.
(The following is a story from the January-February 2014 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine. You can download the issue in its entirety here.)