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The public library in an Internet age: At Macomb Library for the Blind digital disruption is welcome

Sep 4, 2015

Credit Carolyn Gearig / Michigan Radio

The Macomb Library for the Blind looks more like a combination of a post office and library than just a library. Plastic bins stamped with “US Postal Service” are stacked in the backroom where administrative assistant Kathy Nuss and librarian Anne Mandel run through lists of patron orders. The library ships audiobooks, braille books and descriptive DVDs (films where the action is narrated) to Macomb County residents that can’t make it into the library due to a visual or physical impairment. 

The library is part of a national network of libraries for the blind that were created in a 1931 Act of Congress. Since then, a steady stream of funding from federal, state and county levels means the mail-order service is free of charge, and also provides each patron with an audiobook reader. It's a black box about the size of a hardcover novel with large buttons that skip chapters, add bookmarks, fast-forward and rewind through audiobooks.

Where other libraries feel the need to reinvent themselves in a digital age, libraries for the blind welcome the digital shift. At the Macomb Library for the Blind, the front room of is equipped with a braille printer, magnification devices and computers with screen readers. 

 

Sharon Lotoczky is a technology tutor at the Macomb Library at the Blind. She fell into the role after a friend asked her to teach her how to use an adaptive computer program.
Credit Paula Friedrich / Michigan Radio

Technology tutor Sharon Lotoczky meets with patrons to teach them how to use these programs. Her hands quickly tap across bright yellow keys twice the size of a regular keyboard. She navigates websites by listening for cues from the screen reader and never has to touch a mouse.

Lotoczky fell into the tutor role after a friend called her up and said “I need a tutor and you’re it.” She’s visually impaired herself, so Lotoczky's knowledge of the technology comes from her own experiences, which she said pairs well with her formal training as a counselor. She also moderates the library’s book club, which meets over the phone every month and is a tight-knit community. Lotoczky said that’s in part because it offers a break from having to deal with everyday disconnects with sighted people.

“We don’t have to explain anything when we get together,” she said. “We have a great time because there are a lot of things that we can openly speak about to each other, and we will speak differently to each other or about different things if we are in a group of blind folks. It’s that camaraderie aspect.”

The shelves at the Macomb Library for the Blind are filled with birdhouses, rather than books. The books are much more compact, mostly in audiobook form, and sent out through the post.
Credit Paula Friedrich / Michigan Radio

Head librarian Anne Mandel said serving a smaller population also creates a tighter bond between librarian and patron, even though she mostly only speaks to patrons on the phone. She takes orders, renewals and recommends books, same as anywhere.

Over the past two months we’ve traveled throughout the state to see how libraries in Michigan are serving curious Michiganders. See the rest of our stories on Michigan libraries here and here.

-Paula Friedrich and Carolyn Gearig