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The National Library for the Blind

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The National Library for the Blind (NLB) is a public library in the United Kingdom, founded in 1882, which aims to ensure that the visually impaired have the same access to library services as sighted people.

Origins

The Lending Library for the Blind began its service to readers on Monday 9 October, 1882. The Library was a private charitable venture by Martha Arnold – blind herself since childhood – and it was accommodated in a small room of her house at 73 Fairfax Road, South Hampstead, London. Carlota Howden1 was Arnold's first assistant: the two ladies ran the library on a voluntary basis with the assistance of a few friends.

Miss Arnold intended in particular that the Library should 'bring solace and light' and that it should help to 'raise the literary standard of the blind'. More stress was probably laid on the first objective: the early catalogues suggest that the book titles chosen for stock were frequently more significant for their evangelical fervour and/or their moral tone than for their literary standard. These were no more than fifty volumes on the shelves when the Library opened its doors to its first ten registered readers.

The Library opened at first on Monday afternoons only to the blind readers who were in a position to call. Parcels of books were sent off to 'country members' on the first and third Mondays of each month. Volumes were issued for four weeks each: readers who consistently returned them late were suitably admonished.

The annual subscription for borrowers was 4s. 4d.2 – one penny a week – but those 'in better circumstances' were expected to pay half a guinea. During the Library's first five years, the number of readers increased to about one hundred and the stock to 750 volumes (600 in Braille, 130 in Moon, and 20 in the Lucas system of printing for the blind). However, more space for the book stock soon became urgently necessary. In 1886, Miss Arnold therefore moved to 28 Boundary Road and subsequently, a year later, to 114 Belsize Road, London.

The stocks of books in Moon and Lucas systems had mostly been presented to the Library and some of those in the Braille system had been purchased – on special terms – from the British and Foreign Blind Society. Much of the Braille, however, had been hand-transcribed by voluntary workers. Miss Arnold transcribed some titles herself and she also trained friends to write Braille, thus establishing a tradition of voluntary service which has meant much to the Library over the whole period of its existence.

The Library and the number of its readers grew steadily during the last decade of the 19th Century. By 1859 it was serving 300 readers with a stock of 3,200 volumes. Approximately 1,500 'boxes, parcels and hampers' were being sent out each year. The strain of providing service to readers was becoming too heavy for a voluntary – and ageing – staff.

Incorporation

Towards the end of Miss Arnold's life the Library began to experience serious administrative difficulties. After many delays the Library was registered under the style of Incorporated National Lending Library for the Blind on 15 September, 1898. Mrs Dow was particularly active during the uncomfortable transition period.

The annual membership fee charged to blind readers was raised in stages to two guineas. The poorest readers were allowed to pay less – in the hardest cases very substantially less – but only after the committee had considered each application for remission.

The first paid staff were recruited: Miss McLaren as Secretary, and Miss Lohr as Librarian. These appointments eased the difficulties of day-to-day routine considerably but the accommodation problem became steadily acute. By 1904 the stock had grown to nearly 8,000 volumes, with a yearly addition of more than 500.

The Library moved to new premises – an adapted shop and basement at 125 Queen's Road, Bayswater – in September, 1904. Miss McLaren and Miss Lohr both retired in the following year. The new officers appointed to replace them proved unsatisfactory and in 1906 Miss Ethel Winifred Austin took up the new post of Secretary and Librarian.

Ethel Austin

This period proved to be the most eventful of the Library's history. Within a year of Miss Austin taking up her duties it was abundantly clear that in this cheerful, enthusiastic and tireless woman librarian the Library had found new leadership of exceptionally high quality.

Miss Austin's achievements were made despite very difficult circumstances. Although special low rates of postage for embossed volumes for the blind were granted by the Postmaster General in 1908, financial problems continued. After World War I began in 1914 it was very difficult to retain staff for even short periods of time.

The Library's storage accommodation at Bayswater soon proved too small for the ever-growing stock of books. Stage by stage, the rest of the premises at 125 Queen's Road was taken over and, by 1915, the last available space in the cellar had been filled with shelving. Premises owned by the Architectural Association in Tufton Street, Westminster were acquired and remodelled and the Library moved into its new headquarters in 1916.

1916 – the year of the final withdrawal from Gallipoli and of the devastating Battle of the Somme was key in determining the future of the NLB Library. It was not only rehoused: it was declared free for all blind readers; its change of name to the National Library for the Blind was approved by the Board of Trade; it obtained exemption from the payment of rates under the Scientific and Literary Societies Act of 1843; and Lord Shaw of Dunfermline, Chairman of the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, also became Chairman of the Library. He was assisted as Vice-Chairman by Mr H. J. Wilson, Secretary of Gardener's Trust for the Blind.

Ethel Austin's earliest proposals of 1911 for the amalgamation of small libraries for the blind into one centralised system proved abortive but by 1917 the Braille collections of the Home Teaching Society, the Girls Friendly Society and the Catholic Trust Society had been taken over. During the same year the Library of the Manchester and Salford Blind Aid Society was generously presented to the National Library for the Blind and incorporated into NLB as its Northern Branch.

Miss Austin attended the early meetings in Manchester but died suddenly in May, 1918.

The Inter-War Period

By 1918 the annual expenditure of the Library had risen to £6,000 and the annual circulation of volumes to nearly 100,000. Approximately 80 Public Libraries were receiving regular consignments of books and the first foreign readers were in contact with the Library. The Library's income was still uncertain and insecure, and the problem of establishing the new Northern Branch on a satisfactory financial basis caused grave concern.

Premises were found in Manchester – in the shape of a 40-year-old fancy goods warehouse – and these were purchased and adapted.

The rebuilding of the Tufton Street portion of the Westminster premises was undertaken in 1935, reflecting a more healthy financial position. The Northern Branch proposal of the same period to move into premises on the fourth floor of the then newly completed Manchester Central Library came to nothing.

World War II

The Library's experience between 1939 and 1945 did not differ significantly from that of other large organisations with buildings in vulnerable areas. The London Headquarters and the Northern Branch buildings both suffered damage through enemy action; the damage in Manchester proved the more severe. The Headquarters' basement became a 'day and night' public shelter and a 'roof spotter' watched over the safety of the building.

Members of the staff were drafted into the Service and other war-time duties and acceptable substitutes were obtained only with great difficulty. The service to blind readers continued, nevertheless, throughout the war years and severe restrictions had to be imposed only in the supply of books to readers overseas. The annual issue of volumes that had reached 350,000 by 1938/39 fell only to 320,000 in 1943/44 and to 311,000 in 1945/46, after which it began again to increase.

Post-War

During this period, the Library's financial basis was modified and improved and the Library was re-structured. New Articles of Association made the Council the governing body. Following the report of an Advisory Committee of the Library Association appointed in 1952, the new post of Librarian and Director-General was created.

In 1952, Queen Elizabeth II became Patron of the Library - a position she holds to this day.

In 1958, work was completed to reconstruct the Northern Branch building to enable it to function effectively as an efficient modern library. The Library's methods were revised and brought up to date; mechanisation was introduced where practicable.

The Move to Stockport

After a period of relative prosperity, the Library again hit financial problems in the early to mid-1970s as spiralling inflation overtook a fairly static income. Considerable cost savings could be made by combining the London and Manchester operations. It would obviously be economical to move out of high-cost Westminster and to concentrate the whole organisation in lower-cost Manchester. But the Northern Branch building was far too small to house the whole Library and it would not be possible to enlarge or extend it adequately.

It was finally decided that the two service points should be amalgamated but in another building in the Greater Manchester area. The possibilities of erecting a new purpose-built Library were considered but, owing to high building costs and to current difficulties in controlling them during an inevitably lengthy construction period, it was decided that a modern building suitable for conversion should first be sought.

A thorough search for suitable buildings was made across Greater Manchester during 1975 and 1976. The Library's essential needs were for warehouse space suitable for conversion into a book-stack providing 20,000 metres of easily accessible shelving and a large circulation and dispatch department, with offices immediately adjoining, all preferably on one floor. A suitable building was found at Bredbury in Stockport. This was approximately ten years old when found and had been the regional headquarters of a conglomerate firm which no longer required it.

The staff and resources of the Northern Branch moved in during January, 1978 and Head Office during the following February and March. The move freed up resources, reduced costs and increased efficiency as all the Library's book stock was now shelved under one roof.

The Modern Library

The 1980s and 1990s saw the computerisation of Braille production and stock management leading to a more efficient, cost-effective operation. More recently, NLB has diversified into electronic library services and has embraced the possibilities of the Internet as an information-leveller for visually impaired people.

Autumn 2003 saw a major development in the launch of Revealweb, which provides a web-based catalogue of titles available from NLB and a wide variety of other organisations.

Membership of NLB continues to be free. The Library's lending stock now comprises around 46,000 titles in Braille, Braille music, Moon-type and Large Print formats. Typically 170,000 volumes are issued in a year, posted out across the UK and overseas. NLB remains a charity reliant on the generosity of its supporters - it receives no direct government funding.

NLB lobbies and campaigns for more books to be made available to visually impaired readers. Less than 5% of books published make it into an accessible format.

  • At the time of writing (2005), NLB's Chairman is Dr Gillian A Burrington, OBE and its Chief Executive is Ms Helen Brazier.
  • NLB's address is:
    • Far Cromwell Road
      Bredbury
      STOCKPORT
      SK6 2SG
      United Kingdom
      Telephone: +44 161 355 2000
      Fax: +44 161 355 2098
      E-mail: enquiries@nlbuk.org.

    External Links

    1Later Carlota Dow.2Four shillings and fourpence in old money - 52 pence in post-decimalisation terminology.

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