Philly library balks at realignment of Pa. services for the blind

The Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Philadelphia faces a reduction of many of its services for the blind beginning in April. The Pennsylvania Department of Education, which funds all the state’s libraries for the blind, is centralizing audiobook services in Pittsburgh.

The local library administration is crying foul.

Library services for the blind in Pennsylvania are split right down the middle of the state: Pittsburgh handles the western half while Philadelphia oversees the eastern portion.

To streamline the system, the Department of Education’s Office of Commonwealth Libraries decided that the two libraries should be divided by services, rather than geography. Beginning in April, Pittsburgh will handle loaning all materials, and Philadelphia will handle marketing and outreach.

The administrator of the Philadelphia Library for the Blind, Keri Wilkins, opposes that plan. Her library handles about 16,000 patrons, twice the number of patrons as Pittsburgh. She says centralizing loans on the other side of the state will not increase efficiency.

“There still needs to remain our personal relationship we have been building for decades,” said Wilkins. “There are reader advisory services — we do the browsing on the computer, we do the walk-ins, the phone calls. There’s a lot of things we disagree with and we need to come together.”

Wilkins says more than half of the state’s audiobook collection is still on analog cassette. If the collection were digitized, every library branch could potentially act as an instant download station.

“Most of those changes could be toward decentralization, and for the same amount of money it could drastically improve services for blind people throughout Pennsylvania,” said Jim Antonacci, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania. “Unfortunately, the change to centralize the old delivery method in Pennsylvania is the most ill-conceived idea someone has come up with.”

Although the Philadelphia Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is operated by the Free Library, its funding comes directly from the state, to the tune of $1.6 million, or about 60 percent of total state money for blind library services.

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