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The NLS Music Section

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Co-written with Claire L. Rojstaczer

Whether it is a music librarian humming a tune, a recording of a trumpet lesson, or the soothing voice of an instructor detailing the intricacies of a Rossini opera, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped’s Music Section is constantly abuzz with the sounds of music.

For over fifty years the NLS Music Section has provided its patrons with opportunities to play, sing, and learn about music through its collection of special-format scores and instructional recordings. Musicians of all abilities can check out large-print and braille scores, ranging in genre from popular songs to classical symphonies, as well as instructional audio and braille books if they wish to discover more about music history or composition.

The original Reading Room for the Blind in the Library of Congress.
Photo of the Original “Reading Room for the Blind” in the Library of Congress. Photo taken between 1909 and 1932.

How did such a special collection come into being?

The Music Section was established on October 9, 1962, when President Kennedy signed Public Law 87-765 permitting the Library of Congress to “establish and maintain a library of musical scores, instructional texts, and other specialized materials for the use of the blind.”

After the signing of PL 87-765, NLS acquired 8,000 music items from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Howe Press, an arm of the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. By July 1964 the collection had further expanded to include international scores, bringing the total music collection to 19,000 items.

But braille is only a part of the Music Section’s collection. What about the recordings?

Although recordings were available in the earliest days of the collection, the Music Section did not actively amass recordings until the 1970s, when it first purchased audiobooks from the Center for Cassette Studies. These recordings included biographies of composers, such as Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and Wagner, along with music appreciation and instruction material. The Music Section continued to acquire recordings and, by the 1980s, had begun producing additional instructional recordings in-house.

Today, the total collection has grown to nearly 25,000 titles, including 20,000 braille scores, 800 large-print scores, and 3,000 instructional and appreciation recordings, making it the largest special-format music library in the world.

The Music Section continues to evolve, and the latest challenge it faces is digitization. The Music Section’s role as a world-class repository of special-format music carries with it the responsibility to ensure that its materials—some of which are impossible to replace—are preserved.

Braille was the first thing to be digitized, as NLS began using Braille Recognition Software, which converts digital scans of press braille to electronic braille files, in the early 2000s. These files are now available to eligible, registered patrons for download through the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) website. In mid-2012, the Music Section began digitizing recorded materials so that they also could be downloaded from the BARD site. In the near future, much of the Music Section’s braille and audio material will be available electronically.

From its humble beginnings in the 1960s, the NLS Music Section has transformed into one of the most important and well-loved programs offered by NLS today. It has enriched the lives of countless musicians, and has kept the music going after all of these years.

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