NYC’s Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library

By The Slatin Group
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Where do book lovers who happen to be blind or have other print disabilities go to peruse new releases and current magazines, browse tactile maps and artwork, or go online without having to lug around their laptops? The Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, on 20th Street in the Flatiron District, has one of the largest openly browsable circulating Braille collections in the United States. Founded in 1895 as the New York Free Circulating Library for the Blind, the Heiskell was renamed in 1991 when it moved to its current six-story space. It’s still the place where readers with print disabilities know they can come to check out a beloved book, and there’s plenty here of interest for visitors to the City as well. Patrons can attend one of the twice-weekly Braille study groups, book club meetings, creative writing workshops or even a performance by the New York Opera Forum, with large-print and Braille plot summaries supplied (the next scheduled performance: Mozart’s Don Giovanni on June 10). Other upcoming events include a tactile fabric art exhibit curated by Auspicious Stitches, which will go up later this spring or summer.

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Along with locals from New York City and Long Island, visitors come from across the country and around the world to enjoy the Heiskell’s unique collection, says Jill Rothstein, the chief librarian. The institution has 13,160 Braille titles, 33,636 books on digital cartridge and 1,970 large-print books. Patrons can even access critical information about getting around in the City from resources such as Braille maps, or preview great artworks by examining tactile art reproductions. There is plenty of accessible technology on hand as well: every computer in the library is equipped with the powerful screen-reading programs that people with print disabilities rely on to navigate the web or perform other tech tasks (both Windows and Mac computers are available). Although all computers in the NYPL system have this screen-reading capability, the Heiskell also features other technology for its visitors, including scanners and software that enable users to read printed material without turning to someone else for assistance.

The library has built a tech staff that understands the needs of its patrons and can lend a hand if needed. “We have the ability to coach both individual and group workshops,” Rothstein says. “It’s not just the devices but also how to use them.” The tech staff holds frequent free seminars on everything from how to use an iPhone’s VoiceOver screen-reader to nonvisual coding and robotics. The Heiskell is a true community for its patrons, whether they are blind or visually impaired or face other difficulties in reading print. In fact, it was the host organization behind Visible Lives, an oral history project celebrating New York’s disability community. About 250 fascinating, in-depth personal stories told by people with disabilities are archived at the library and available online at oralhistory.nypl.org.

The Heiskell receives some 80,000 visitors a year—and they leave (and return) with more than 440,000 items. Each spring, the institution hosts City Services Day, with representatives from numerous city agencies such as the Mayor’s Office For People with Disabilities and the Department of Parks & Recreation. This fall will see the fourth annual Community, Culture and Technology Fair, giving attendees the opportunity to check out the latest in assistive technology software and gadgets, such as Braille tablets, personal readers and a service that provides access to a visual interpreter for the blind for devices such as Google Glass.

Rothstein has worked at several other NYPL branches, but the Heiskell is her hands-down favorite. “It’s the most appreciative and rewarding place,” she says. “People love our books.”


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