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“I Sent That Back a Few Days Ago” or, the Perils of Free Matter for the Blind and Shipping and Receiving for the NLS Music Section

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Many times our patrons practically inhale some of the titles we send them, they are so anxious to learn about a composer, opera, or the latest lesson for their guitar or piano. They have plenty of time; the established borrowing period is for three months, and should they need it longer, they can renew it by telephone or e-mail for another three months. We make an extra effort to deliver their requests ASAP, but sometimes a few steps are necessary before it leaves the building. For example, if we find only one copy of a braille music score on the shelf, and there is no Master (paper original), we send it after it has been scanned, proofed and embossed.  This might be two days or ten, depending on the size of the score and the complexity of the scanning and proofing. When we ship any of our materials, we allow a three week period for it to arrive at its destination. If a patron hasn’t received it by then or for some strange reason it has returned to us, we will send another copy, but request that the patron return the extra if both copies arrive.

All our materials are sent for free, according to a special law that applies to individuals who are low vision/blind. The free matter mailing privilege pre-dates the National Library Service for the Blind to 1900. Congress provides an annual subsidy to the U.S. Post Office to underwrite costs for the blind population to send and receive materials in a special format, such as braille, 14-point large print type, and audio played back at a non-commercial format. After passage of the Pratt-Smoot  Act in 1931 and signed into law by President Herbert Hoover, the National Library Service for the Blind became the primary user. Materials sent via free matter are not a special class of mail, and for the purpose of delivery should be treated as first-class mail.

We do send items to other countries; previously, we used an orange sticker to indicate it as international free matter for the blind, but have recently changed this to a red/blue label.

International Free Matter Labels
Photo of International Free Matter label (red, blue and white with figure walking with a cane and envelope showing) and previous label (orange, with word Blindpost surrounded by black border.)

Since 2001, mail to federal agencies has slowed due to security concerns. When items are returned to the NLS Music Section, audio materials are sent to a processing center in Ohio for clearance before they are shipped back to us. The center waits to send several boxes together as a big shipment. For braille and large print scores, they arrive at an off-site inspection center to be opened and x-rayed, then taped and returned to us here at NLS.

Braille container
Photo of braille shipping container with ‘Free Matter for the Blind or Handicapped’ in the upper right corner and ‘Property of the U.S. Government Library of Congress below the slot for the address card.

We try to check these items in promptly, to clear a patron’s record and move on to their next request.

So, while we’re happy you sent that back yesterday, we probably won’t receive it in a matter of days. Being located in Washington D.C. is a geographical factor as well, rather than the closer access regional libraries have when serving patrons in their state. For the Music Section, it might take longer to send and receive to the West Coast than it would to the East Coast.

We appreciate and continue to serve all patrons and realize not everyone has access to a computer. But there is a remedy to this lag time. Downloading, of course. You’re never too old to learn and we encourage those who are interested to take steps to obtain a BARD (Braille and Audio Reader Download) ID and password. Then, that three week period can be shortened to three minutes, or even three seconds!

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