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NCBI is a not-for-profit charitable organisation that provides support and services to over 17,000 people of all ages who are blind and vision impaired throughout the country.
Our vision is for people who are blind and vision impaired to have the same opportunities, rights and choices as others to fully participate in society. Our mission is to enable people who are blind and vision impaired to overcome the barriers that impede their independence and participation in society.
NCBI’s library is the only national library for blind and vision impaired people in Ireland. The library stocks 16,500 Braille, audio and large print titles.
Right to read – the problem
Everyone has the right to read but unfortunately realising this right is more difficult for some people. All people living in Ireland have access to free books from their publicly funded local library but at least 14,800 blind or vision impaired people rely on one primary source for accessible reading material – NCBI’s library. Despite the fact that NCBI’s library service is the only national library for blind people in Ireland, it only receives funding from the Health Service Executive (HSE) towards some staffing costs. Public funding does not cover the costs of production of accessible books or the purchase of any library stock.
NCBI’s library currently stocks 16,500 Braille, audio and large print titles and last year alone lent out just over 24,400 titles to its 4,300 active Library members. The library is over 150 years old, having been established in 1858, and holds a valuable collection of rare pieces of Braille literature, which have contributions from authors and journalists of the time dating back to the 1920s. This Braille collection is a very important asset to Irish heritage and culture which must be preserved.
The service is free to members and has a national reach from its central location in Dublin. Books are sent out free of charge using An Post’s free post system available through ‘articles for the blind’. The library produces around 30 Braille and 20 audio Irish interest books annually – 20% of what should be produced to keep up with new titles. The library is the only producer of accessible Irish interest books; these titles would not otherwise be available to members in an accessible format were the library not to exist and originate titles in different formats.
Audio and digital production
One average audio book takes around 40 hours to produce, with the final product offering approximately 10 hours of listening time. After a book has been selected, a reader begins their recording in twenty-minute sessions. The reader then takes a ten minute break to rest their voice. On average a recording session lasts about two hours. After each recording session, the sound engineer edits the errors that have occurred during recording.
Once the recording is completed, the files are digitally stored. The next part of the process sees a 4-track audio copy produced and placed in the library’s collection. A sophisticated copy, containing searchable text and audio files are combined in a DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System format and this is also stored in the library for later distribution.
In order to produce a Braille book, a print novel is scanned, page-by-page, and the files are then edited for errors. The editors go through the scanned pages to make sure that no spelling or grammatical errors have occurred during the scanning process. Once this has been checked, the files are then embossed. When the book has been produced in Braille, a copy is sent to a Braille proof reader where they check for errors that may have occurred in the transfer from text to Braille character stage. Once printed, the book is then catalogued and made available to library members.
Low vision service
NCBI’s library currently holds approximately 1,000 large-print titles. Most of these titles are American westerns or romance novels, which have been donated. Unfortunately large print publishing houses do not seem to be able to provide Irish interest titles in large-print format. There is a need amongst the library’s large-print readers for interesting and up-to-date publications. NCBI’s Library must look at investing in systems to enable production of this format.
On-going lack of adequate funding
A lack of adequate funding and resources has created a number of other problems in terms of meeting demands for accessible books. These problems are outlined below:
- The platform on which NCBI’s library system operates is totally out of date which causes operational problems in terms of speed of use, reliability and in that it continually breaks down. This system urgently needs to be upgraded.
- DAISY stands for Digital Accessible Information System. NCBI began producing a small collection of DAISY books in 2007 but this collection is far from meeting the demand that children with vision impairments (aged 2 to 17 years) have for these state-of-the-art books. We cannot offer DAISY books to members over age of 18 at all as we do not have funding or resources to do so.
- At the moment copyright restrictions and a lack of funding does not allow NCBI to produce audio books for people with dyslexia, many of whom have difficulty reading print. Additional funding would enable NCBI to work closely in the production of audio material in accessible formats for students with dyslexia.
- NCBI’s library holds the digital files for many Irish interest titles. These digital files are produced during Braille production. With appropriate funding, these files can be produced in large print, as there is a growing demand for Irish interest large print books.
- NCBI’s library would like to increase its own production of accessible books to meet the growing demands by library members. Without proper funding, this growth cannot happen. One audio book costs €1,500 to record, edit and produce in an accessible format. Annually, the library produces approximately 30 Braille titles and 20 audio titles in accessible formats – 20% of what should be produced. The library receives no funding for this valuable service, which is under huge pressure for an increase in its output.
- The cost of purchasing audio books to stock NCBI’s library is extremely high. The average cost of an unabridged audio book is €35, which is approximately three times the cost of an average print book. Additional funding would enable NCBI’s library to purchase additional audio material. This would ultimately offer more choice for library members.
- The library holds a valuable Braille collection of Irish interest titles that date from the 1920s.This collection is of historic and cultural importance as some of the publications include contributions from authors and journalists from the early Twentieth Century. These Braille books need to be transcribed back into print, captured digitally and catalogued for future generations to access. Valuable funding is needed to preserve this collection.
We must act now to meet the future demands of our service users. The number of people using NCBI’s services is increasing by approximately 12% year-on-year. Last year more than 500 new members joined NCBI’s library.
The Vision Impaired Service Providers Alliance (VISPA), of which NCBI is a member, produced a report entitled “Eyes on the Future” (2008) , which provides vital new information about sight loss in Ireland.
There are more than 14,800 people who are blind or vision impaired known to NCBI. However, these figures appear to underestimate the true extent of blindness by approximately 30-40%. There may be a further 4,000 to 5,000 people throughout the country that have significant difficulties with their eyesight but, for a variety of reasons, have either not been identified, or sought out the services that are available to them.
In fact, about 30,000 adults in Ireland are currently living with significant sight loss as a result of not having the appropriate spectacle correction. This is most likely due to the lack of awareness of the importance of regular eye exams.
According to Eyes on the Future, the number of blind and significantly low vision people in the Republic of Ireland (using World Health Organisation definitions) aged 55 years and over is likely to increase by 350% between 2006 and 2031.
As a charitable organisation, NCBI can no longer shoulder the costs of running our vital nationwide library service alone. The role and services of NCBI’s library urgently need to be recognised and appropriately funded by the Government in the same way as public, national or specialist collection libraries. Where else can more than 14,800 people find books, magazines and newspapers in a format they can read? Without funding, the service is going to suffer, with the likelihood of increased waiting times and a smaller selection of books and formats to choose from. This is in a situation where only 5% of written material is made into accessible formats – and most of what does is produced by NCBI.