A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
For nearly 50 years, the territory has been providing talking books to residents who are visually impaired, but outside of the clients and the circle of professionals who work with them, the program is little known.
Under the auspices of the National Library of Congress, the Virgin Islands Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped has been operating an audio lending library since 1968. Located in Christiansted in the Miracle Mile section by District Court, it serves St. Thomas and St. John as well as St. Croix.
According to Regional Librarian Letitia Gittens, currently it has about 200 regular clients, both individuals and organizations whose constituency includes people who are visually disabled.
It’s even been in the same location since 1992, but still, she said, “A lot of people don’t know we exist.” She’d like to get the word out. “There’s millions of dollars of books sitting here.”
The library on St. Croix actually houses nearly 50,000 volumes, and it has access to thousands more through the national system and partnerships with other regional libraries.
The program is jointly sponsored by the local and federal governments. The federal government supplies the materials, Gittens said, while the V.I. government pays the four-person staff. Like other public libraries, it’s part of the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources.
Gittens said most of the library’s clients are people who were sighted but who have gone blind later in life for one reason or another; diabetes and kidney-related diseases are primary causes.
“It’s a hard thing to accept,” she noted, and the library is one way to help keep people connected.
“A lot of our people come that way,” she said. When they discover the audio book service, “it’s like a whole new world opens for them.”
In the early years, the library was sending out tapes. Gittens said she can still get taped versions of many books for clients who want them that way, but the vast majority of books she has on-site are digital. The library also lends out the machines on which to play the books so the customer need not purchase a digital player.
She can also obtain Braille versions of many books, but said, “We don’t have many Braille customers.” As far as what is readily available on-site, “all our books talk to you.”
Readers who sign up with the library receive a bi-monthly magazine, either in large print, in audio or in Braille, depending on their preference. It includes a list of suggested books. Some clients also sign up for the Reader’s Advisory Service, which affords them regular personalized recommendations from the library.
And there are lists posted by the National Library Service of the Library of Congress at www.loc.gov/nls/.
As the digital age progresses, the time from best seller list to audio availability has shortened. Gittens said some books are available to her clients within weeks of proving their popularity. Some recent titles: Act of War, The Bone Clock, Diary of a Mad Diva, One Nation and Mean Streak.
“We do rate books” regarding levels of violence, explicit sex and language, and that can slow things slightly, she said, but now some books are released “unrated.”
“We get books almost every day. We’re constantly getting new books,” Gittens said.
She’d like to see the day when the local library could develop its own audio books, concentrating on local authors and books of special regional interest. Getting volunteers to read would be easy, she said, but right now there is no money for the necessary recording equipment.
Books from the V.I. library go to customers through the mail.
“We try to make it easy for clients,” Gittens said. “If you already have a disability, you don’t need any issues.”
Another option is to get the BARD app and download books from the web. The local library also partners with BARD, Braille and Audio Reading Download, an Internet service through which people can obtain books. That library is growing fast. According to the website, it had 25,000 different books in 2012, but Gittens said the number is double that now.
For more information, contact Gittens at (340) 718-2250.