Throughout the year, SunLit features interviews with Colorado authors, excerpts from their books and how to add them to your collection. But this week’s SunLit interview focuses on those who, for a wide variety of reasons, are unable to enjoy standard print volumes.
There’s a totally free service to help these folks access literature they might otherwise never know. The Colorado Talking Book Library, based in Denver, has been delivering audio, Braille and large print editions to people throughout the state for decades. Still, it may be one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets.
Earlier this week, SunLit caught up with library director Debbi MacLeod, who has led the organization for the last 17 years. She talked about the 90-year-old service, how it helps its patrons, how technology has created new opportunities and why not everyone, no matter how well-meaning, is cut out to be a narrator.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
SunLit: You’ve called the library a “well-kept secret.” Tell me some of the backstory of how the Colorado Talking Book Library was created.
Debbi MacLeod: This is our 90th anniversary year. In 1931, the Pratt-Smoot Act granted the Library of Congress some money and the task of delivering audio and Braille books to blind adults. It was mostly instituted for the blinded veterans that were coming back from World War I. So that’s how we got a start.
Then over the years they added blind children, and they added people who have physical conditions that interfere with reading — and that’s like Parkinson’s and MS and traumatic brain injury, and the after-effects of a stroke, or paraplegia, arthritis. There’s tons of conditions that interfere with reading standard print.
And then, in the early ’70s, they added learning disabilities. So this constellation of issues creates print disabilities. Whatever causes you to not be able to read standard print makes you eligible for this service, which is a free service, because it’s your tax dollars at the federal and the state level. Every state has libraries such as this. So it’s a nationwide service, but it’s delivered to the patrons at the state level.
SunLit: How do you connect with your clients?
MacLeod: Generally they find us. Friends and family are our biggest referral group, and that’s about 20%. We have a lot of people who drive by the building because we’re on Sheridan Boulevard (in Denver), and they wonder what it is, so they look it up or they just stop and come in and ask. We also try and do a lot of outreach to what we call ambassadors to the medical community, the nursing community. We have a volunteer program, which is semi-inactive at the moment because of COVID, but we have several volunteers who become ambassadors themselves in their retirement communities or when they go out to travel. So it’s kind of a little of everything.
SunLit: Who qualifies for your services? It sounds like you serve way more people than just those who are blind.
MacLeod: Oh, absolutely. We get people who are in denial and won’t sign up for service even though they need it. If you’re having any issues reading standard print you qualify. So it really is broad, and I still learn about different conditions. There are people who have an allergy to paper. So they can’t hold a book or turn pages because pages in books are paper.
There are people with compromised lung function. And the net effect of that is they have no stamina, so they can’t hold a book, and even just putting it on a tray, and then turning the page, that’s sometimes too much effort. So audio books would be perfect — you hit a “play” button and all you have to do is listen. So it’s very interesting how over time you learn different situations that enable people to qualify that you would never have guessed.
SunLit: Your web site mentions that you have clients from age 3 to 104. Who are some of the folks who benefited from the Talking Books along that spectrum.
MacLeod: Many of the youngest children who get signed up are blind or have low vision. And then as we get into school age, you get learning disabilities and reading disabilities, kids with those issues. We’ve had parents write to us when their child has graduated from high school saying they were so grateful that there was this service — that otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to graduate from high school as easily, learned vocabulary as easily or fit in to their school as easily. So there’s those kinds of benefits for children.
Once you become a patron of the library you’re always a patron of the library, so you have it throughout your whole life. The current director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled became a patron at age 9, I think. And eventually she became the director of the library in Iowa and then she became the director of the whole service at the national level. And she’s now in her 60s and about to retire.
In the middle years, we’ve had a patron who had multiple strokes, and we were able to sign her up. The playback machine has the capacity to slow speech down or speed it up without very much distortion, and she had aphasia. But she taught herself how to speak, again, using the service. An associate would put a book in, and she’d play a word, very slowly so she could hear every nuance of the word, and then she would repeat the word, and then she would play it again and repeat the word and play it again and repeat the word. So it was just retraining her brain. And it was a laborious process but she did it, and she was able to tell us, in person, this story. That is just totally gratifying, that somebody was able to learn to speak again after strokes by using our player and books.
Many, many older adults come into the service because they’ve had medical issues in their 60s 70s and 80s. And what happens is, they don’t know about the service, they end up isolated in their living rooms and they kind of shut down. And then somebody in their building, a friend, a family member, a service provider, lets them know about the service and signs them up. And then all of a sudden, the world is opened back up to them and they re-engage. And they tell us over and over again, “You’ve saved me from depression, you’ve saved my life. It had no meaning before and now it has meaning again.” So these are the kinds of things we hear. It’s really gratifying.
SunLit: You referenced the “reader” that people can have or borrow long term. What kind of technology facilitates your services?
MacLeod: We have two methods of delivering books. We have audio, Braille and large print books, and at the moment Braille and large print books go through the mail, postage paid. In about a year, there’ll be a digital player for Braille, that will be available for Braille readers so it’s a refreshable Braille display. The digital file is read and then will push pins up and create the Braille on a line.
For audio, they can be delivered in a physical format, or a downloadable format. For the physical format, we have a player that we provide on a permanent loan for as long as you need it. And then we send cartridges out to patrons in a mail container. And on the cartridge are multiple books. So you can get three or four cartridges and have 45 or 60 books to choose from.
The cartridges are created personally for each patron, from a request list. You can have 50 books on a request list, or we have subject codes in the patron records so you would say, “I’d like Colorado history, or I like Westerns and I like mysteries.” And if there’s nothing in your request list, then the computer picks books from your subjects. You can also identify authors that you like or narrators that you like.
SunLit: So getting audio cartridges, Braille or large print books through the mail is one way to connect with patrons. What’s the other?
MacLeod: There’s also digital download. We call this system BARD, and there’s a mobile app for your smart device. The app mimics the playback machine. So we’re hoping that if people have a smart device, and they’re comfortable using it and using apps, that they would choose to use that first before asking for a playback machine.
SunLit: What about foreign language books? Can patrons access those through the library?
MacLeod: One of the exciting things is that with the Marrakesh Treaty, you can share audio files back and forth across international lines without copyright issues. So NLS is working now on bringing many more books in foreign languages into the program. And all of those books are up on BARD and available, and there’ll be more and more as we go along.
SunLit: What kind of capacity can the library accommodate? And are you anywhere near capacity?
MacLeod: So we have about 7,000 patrons statewide. We have at least one patron in every county, which is great. I did a sort of a GPS overlay of the general population and our population and it pretty much maps the general population — so it’s not like it’s particularly skewed in one way or another. I estimate there half a million people in Colorado that qualify for service. So we have a drop in the bucket.
So therein lies the challenge that we all struggle with. We have capacity. I mean, we’re fine with the 7,000 , but I would love to have the problem of having 20,000 patrons and trying to serve them. I think that we could rise to the occasion. I would much prefer to have more patrons and have to juggle resources to serve them than to just sit back on our laurels and say 7,000 is enough. Because it really isn’t.
SunLit: I read where you use professional readers, but what kind of role is there for volunteers who would like to narrate books?
MacLeod: There are professionals and they get paid to do that. In Denver, there are two audio narration businesses — Books To Life and Talking Books Publishers — and they both have contracts with NLS. At the state level, there are 40 states that have local recording studios and Colorado is one of them. And we operate those recording studios with volunteers.
SunLit: Where do I sign up?
MacLeod: Well, we have a process by which we select narrators because everybody wants to be a narrator, right? But there’s an art to it and there’s a science to it, and the art part is kind of hard. You have to be able to read with the same kind of modulation for an hour. And, you know, you’ve got to do prep work and things like that.
We have had many voiceover professionals and local actors come and volunteer, and some people who are in radio or TV have come in sometimes. And so, because everybody wants to be a narrator, we start them in review, so they begin to understand what we’re looking for, and then they progress up to being a monitor and then into the narrator.
We need to know that they have a commitment to the program, because it takes six to nine months to record a book. And you can’t just start a book and decide six months later you’re done, this is good enough, and not finish the book — because it’s a huge waste.
We have three recording booths, and when we’re open they’re generally all full, Monday through Thursday. We’ve got some early evening hours on Wednesday or Thursday night and Friday is left for special projects and kind of clean up. So that’s what goes on at the studio and how book titles are brought into the program.
SunLit: How has the pandemic affected your operations?
MacLeod: In general, we were lucky in that we did not need to close the library at any time. A year ago, the governor called for all state offices to reduce their staff by 50% in the building and have people work from home. So we were able to do that. The other 50% in the building — which is all the jobs that could not be done at home — kept the service going, so patrons have been getting their books the entire time, which has been a lifeline for them.
None of our staff have gotten sick — knock on wood — and they’re all getting vaccinations at this point, so we’re very lucky on that. With our volunteers, we had to close the building to the public so we shifted as many volunteer jobs to home as well. We’ve all had to be flexible and do things differently.