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“I want to access my local library”

Fri, 03 Sep 2010

Reproduced from NB magazine, June 2010, published by RNIB.


Norman Ellis wants to borrow books from his local library like anyone else. But new touch-screen systems introduced in the name of library modernisation make this difficult.

I've always been a fanatical reader. By the time I was 11; I had exhausted the pleasures of the children's library and gone on to the adult library, which I was allowed to use provided the librarian vetted my choice of books!

Now I read two or three books a week. At the in moment I'm particularly keen on the Lindsey Davis 'Falco' books — detective fiction set in ancient Rome, which is an interest that stems from my time studying classics with the Open University. Davis is so good at giving the background — the organisation of ancient Rome. I think she has done 19 of the novels now, but for a long time I couldn't get half of them. Now all but the latest ones are available from the RNIB Talking Book Service. I've read them all at least three times each!

When I was 30 I was told I would lose my eyesight because of a fairly rare eye disease called ocular cystinosis, which damages the surface of the eyes — it's a bit like trying to look through frosted glass. I wasn't registered blind until I was 51, though. I can see very little now — just things that are a few inches away.

I learnt braille after losing my sight and now I teach it myself. Like my students, I find it useful for many things — my braille labels have enabled me to find things in the garden shed that even my wife can't identify! Braille certainly helps people become more independent after sight loss. But when it comes to reading full-length books I prefer audio. You can sit listening with your feet up! I dislike abridged books very much, and only read the full versions.


When I lost my sight I joined the RNIB Talking Book Service. In those days we used the old tape players, but nowadays we've come much further with the new DAISY (digital audio) books, which I listen to on a portable player. I am fortunate that Social Services pay the cost of the subscription in my county. I also buy books from a service called audible.com which can be downloaded on to an MP3 player.

Good though these services are, only a tiny percentage of the books that are published in print are available. That's one reason why I have remained a keen user of my local library in Tamworth, where I can supplement my reading matter by obtaining audio books on CD that come from other sources.

Touch screens

Until now, that is! In Staffordshire libraries, a system has been installed which I'm told is soon to be rolled out nationwide. It consists of an automated electronic kiosk with a touch screen - something you need to be able to see to use.

In conjunction with these machines they've also taken out the main service desks which used to be the first port of call when you needed attention. In theory the staff are still there to assist you, based at their little desks. But the automatic machines are also designed to free the staff to do extra educational work, fetch items for people, and aid people in research, so it goes without saying that they are not there all the time. I already know of one blind lady who waited 20 minutes before she managed to get hold of someone, because she couldn't see them and they had no way of knowing she was trying to get their attention.

Is this system aimed at creating a better service or saving on staff? If it's the former, it doesn't work. It's an area I care strongly about. I'm the chair of the local access group, and we fight for all disabilities as much as we can. The library service has become very impersonal and very difficult for disabled people. This is not only the case if you're visually impaired and want to borrow large print or audio books, but also if you're print impaired, dyslexic, a stroke victim or have learning difficulties.

Were the needs of visually impaired and other disabled people considered in the decision to introduce this system? The impression I get is that they really aren't interested. We're just not important to them.

A touchscreen check-in service in a library

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