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Study recommends downsizing Philly library for the blind

After more than a century in Philadelphia, the nation's oldest library for the blind is facing the potential loss of most of its materials and services to its Pittsburgh counterpart.

Nana Osei, 23, walks with her guide dog Nevan through Philadelphia's Library for the Blind. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)
Nana Osei, 23, walks with her guide dog Nevan through Philadelphia's Library for the Blind. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)Read more

After more than a century in Philadelphia, the nation's oldest library for the blind is facing the potential loss of most of its materials and services to its Pittsburgh counterpart.

A state-commissioned study has recommended that the Philadelphia Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped be significantly downsized - at a savings of about $600,000 a year for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which funds it.

Although the principal heir would be the Carnegie Library for the Blind, the study also suggests moving Philadelphia's Braille collection - at 95,000 titles one of the country's largest - to Iowa.

The commonwealth's two libraries "are duplicating efforts, incurring unnecessary costs, and increasing the complexity" of usage for their patrons, the draft report said. It also described the library's four-story building at 919 Walnut St. as a "difficult environment in which to work" and warned of lease costs rising 7 percent annually in the next decade.

Predictably, with an estimated one-third of the state's 393,000 visually impaired residents living in the five Southeastern Pennsylvania counties, the study has run into a wall of outrage.

The critics include the Free Library of Philadelphia, which has overseen the Center City institution since the 1930s; a state legislator whose district encompasses it; advocates for the blind; and the users themselves, who walk in or call to order mailed materials at an average rate of 300 a day.

"Here in a city where Benjamin Franklin first came up with the idea of a lending library . . . here is where they are going to take it away from blind people?" asked James Antonacci, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania. He dismissed the savings as "a minuscule percentage of the state budget."

Siobhan Reardon, director of the Free Library, assailed the study as rife with "inadequacies."

"The financials they are using, the data they are using - we're refuting all of it," she said.

The budget for the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh libraries is $2.7 million, down from $2.9 million last year. But it was not the dismal state budget so much as the digital age that prompted the Education Department to order the study, said spokesman Steve Weitzman.

"We determined there was a need to transform this model" of a library for the blind, he said. An Arizona-based consulting firm was hired to take a closer look, leading to the dire conclusions about Philadelphia.

What began in the 1880s as a small private collection - the Pennsylvania Home Teaching Society and Free Circulating Library for the Blind - offers conventional Braille and large-print books and magazines, cassette tapes, and players. But there are also scribe videos, with narrations of what is happening onscreen, computer work stations, and a recording studio.

The sea change, however, has been digital.

A few years ago, the National Library Service for the Blind - a branch of the Library of Congress and supplier of materials to libraries for the visually impaired - began moving from tapes to digital recordings.

The Philadelphia library has followed suit, sending out thousands of digital players and books in an mp3 format that prevents copying. (The U.S. Postal Service provides free mailing of materials for the blind.)

"The response [from users] has been very favorable," said Hedra Packman, director of library services for the Free Library.

So favorable, she said, that when the National Library Service did not meet the demand for digital recordings, the staff at 919 Walnut began making its own, downloading materials from the Washington website and buying cartridges at $7 each.

Packman called the process "immensely staff-intensive . . . because not only are we sending out all the machines and materials, we are learning how to download at the same time."

The study by Community Services Analysis has suggested retaining only about a half-dozen paid staff positions and cutting nearly 30, in addition to relocating "digital books, older cassette media, large-print materials, descriptive videos, and disks" to the Carnegie Library. Although the Pittsburgh building is older, the report says, it is more physically sound, with more space for expansion of collections.

The report also calls for the transfer of the Braille collection to the Iowa Library for the Blind in Des Moines - a scenario that Weitzman said was not expected to survive into the next draft, to be presented in January.

"It's not over yet," he said. "The next administration [of Gov.-elect Tom Corbett] can accept [the recommendations] in part or they can reject them in part."

Christy Lynch, who has been blind for 15 years as the result of a rare eye disease, is hoping the Philadelphia library will be spared.

A student from Riverton, Lynch, 33, is pursuing a college degree online, and uses the library about three times a week, doing research and volunteering. It is not only a critical resource, she said, but a place where she can connect with other blind people in the area.

"We would be really upset if the budget is cut and services moved away," said Lynch, who sings with the Philadelphia Pops. "I understand that things need to be cut, but this [library] is a necessity."

State Rep. Michael H. O'Brien, a Democrat whose district includes the library, wrote in protest to Thomas E. Gluck, Pennsylvania's acting education secretary. He criticized the study as "slipshod and lame," and pointed out that two key advocacy groups, the National Federation for the Blind of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Council for the Blind, had not been consulted.

In an interview, O'Brien praised the Philadelphia library.

Eviscerating it would be "a strike to the quality of life for the blind and visually impaired" throughout the region, he said. "It's just unacceptable."