The National Cooperative Network

NLS Factsheets

The Network of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress March 1996


Blind and physically disabled individuals throughout the United States and its territories receive library service through a network of cooperating libraries. Formal in structure, this cooperative network is supported at local, state, and federal levels.

The federal government provides funds to the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) of the Library of Congress, a subsidy to the U.S. Postal Service for materials to be sent as "free matter," and grants to the states under the Library Services and Construction Act (LSCA). State governments fund direct service through regional libraries and sometimes subregional libraries. Many local governments fund subregional libraries, deposit collections, or local service points. Some network libraries also receive private funding. The diversity of administration reflects the political, financial, and geographic differences, but patrons throughout the country, regardless of their location, have equal access to the same braille and recorded materials. To promote a uniformly high level of service, NLS establishes policies and procedures for network activities and funds the process by which the American Library Association establishes standards for service.

This network, the oldest network of American libraries, was established in 1931, when Congress enacted a bill sponsored by Representative Ruth Pratt and Senator Reed Smoot entitled An Act to Provide Books for the Adult Blind. In that year, eighteen libraries, many of which had been independently acquiring and lending braille materials to blind adult patrons, were designated as regional libraries in a national network for distributing materials produced by the Library of Congress. Congress later expanded the formats of materials and the eligibility of individuals served. In 1952 children were added to the program, and in 1966 Public Law 89-522 extended service to people with physical disabilities that limit the ability to use standard print or hold a book.

With the expanded scope of the program, including more materials in recorded format as well as in braille, the number of regional libraries slowly grew. The fastest growth began in 1966 when LSCA funds became available for states to plan and support library service to blind and physically handicapped individuals. By 1981, 56 regional libraries and 101 subregional libraries had been established. Currently there are 57 regional libraries and 86 subregionals.

Network Libraries

The regional library (RL) is the basic organizational unit in the network. Generally state governments are responsible for ensuring that library service is available to their blind and physically handicapped residents. State libraries either directly administer regional library service by providing staff, space, and a budget, or they contract with another library or rehabilitation agency to do so. Although the service model varies from state to state, the RL is responsible for ensuring that service is provided to eligible residents of the jurisdiction. Standards promulgated by the American Library Association state the basics of service activities. These include registering new patrons, initiating service, maintaining request lists from patrons, circulating books and magazines to patrons, providing reader advisor services, and ensuring that interested patrons receive materials and that materials are retrieved when patrons have finished using them.

Some regional libraries support a network of subregional libraries (SRLs) and, again, the model varies from state to state. Some provide all direct service through SRLs; others have subregional service in only some counties with other counties served by the RL. Most SRLs are part of public library systems and provide localized service. Funding can come from any combination of state and local monies and from LSCA funds.

While most regional libraries have signed formal agreements to act as the machine-lending agencies (MLAs) for distributing audio playback machines and coordinating machine repair in their service areas, as of 1996 four MLAs are separate from the RL. Some MLAs formally authorize machine-sublending agencies to provide machine services locally; locations of sublending agencies range from public libraries to private disability organizations.

The network is divided into four geographic conferences: the north, south, midlands, and west. Each conference elects officers and conducts a meeting for members in odd-numbered years. The conferences elect librarians and patrons to serve on various committees convened by NLS for input on policies and planning.

NLS Support

One of the primary reasons for instituting a national program was to obviate the inevitable difficulty and high cost for individual libraries to acquire books in special formats. From the inception of the program, NLS took responsibility for acquiring materials for the regional libraries. Currently, this service includes the acquisition, production, and distribution of braille and recorded books and magazines, necessary playback equipment, catalogs and other publications, and publicity and marketing materials. NLS contracts for two multistate centers to warehouse and distribute playback equipment and supplies, specialized collections of materials, and backup copies of the NLS collection. NLS also acts as the headquarters for the network and, in that role, disseminates information about disabilities, coordinates weeding and reassignment of excess materials, provides consulting services, develops new products and services, and sponsors a national conference in even-numbered years.

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Posted on 2006-05-30