This is a guest post by Claire Rojstaczer, a writer-editor in the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. It recently appeared in slightly different form in the Library’s Gazette.
Since Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, a flood of Ukrainian refugees has washed over Europe. The National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled has found a way to help those distant refugees — thanks to an earlier wave of Ukrainian immigrants who settled in Cleveland, Ohio, some one hundred and forty years ago.
“I was attending a … meeting for the [International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions] section for libraries serving people with print disabilities in July when someone brought up the shortage of accessible Ukrainian-language books for refugees,” said Kelsey Corlett-Rivera, an NLS foreign language librarian.
She remembered that NLS had a selection of books in Ukrainian but held off on speaking up — she wasn’t sure that the NLS would be able to share them.
Since 2019, the United States has been a member of the Marrakesh Treaty, which allows it to exchange special-format books with other signatory nations even when those materials are under copyright. However, the treaty only allows NLS to share books it produced — which was indeed the case for the NLS Ukrainian collection.
“It turned out that almost all those books were produced by the Cleveland Society for the Blind on contract for the local NLS network library in the 1980s and ’90s,” Corlett-Rivera says. Cleveland has one of the largest and most established Ukrainian immigrant communities in the United States, with the first wave of immigrants coming in the 1870s and 1880s and settling on the west side of the city, according to the “Encyclopedia of Cleveland History,” researched and published by Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
During a follow-up meeting in September, Corlett-Rivera shared the good news with nations hosting refugees. “The main country excited was Lithuania,” she says, “but Finland, Norway and Germany also expressed interest.”
The Cleveland Society for the Blind tapes are just a small part of the foreign language collection at NLS’ Multistate Center East, a storehouse for books and other NLS materials located in Cincinnati. This collection, which includes approximately 900 Ukrainian books, is on cassette tapes, an analog format that NLS began phasing out 15 years ago — but MSCE employee Quincy Jones has been slowly working to digitize them. Once Jones converts a book from cassette, the digital files are uploaded to BARD, the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download website.
It takes an additional round of format conversion to make the Ukrainian titles that Jones has digitized ready for upload to the Global Book Service of the Accessible Books Consortium , the online catalog that supports the practical implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty. That’s because NLS uses a different accessible book format than most of the world.
Sometimes cataloging works in foreign languages poses challenges for NLS staff, but not in the case of Ukrainian. Anita Kazmierczak, head of the NLS Bibliographic Control Section, speaks Ukrainian — so she was able to listen and confirm that the books matched their catalog records.
By year’s end, 59 NLS Ukrainian titles were available for download from GBS by authorized entities in Marrakesh signatory countries. They range from translations of world literature, such as short stories by Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway, to original Ukrainian works, including the poems of Taras Shevchenko, known as the father of Ukrainian literature.
“We’re delighted,” says Monica Halil Lövblad, head of the Accessible Books Consortium in Switzerland. “Now any of our participating ABC libraries located in countries that have implemented the Marrakesh Treaty looking for books in Ukrainian can immediately get them.”
Corlett-Rivera hopes to eventually add more and is also looking into other languages that NLS can contribute. “We have U.S.-produced Hungarian and Romanian collections we could share, too,” she says.
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