That All May Read: A Snapshot of the National Library Service for the Blind & Physically Handicapped

School librarians encourage reading and protect their students’ right to read; but what if one of the students is blind, partially sighted, is physically unable to turn the pages of books, or has a reading disability that prevents reading print normally? The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), based in the Library of Congress, is an excellent source for special-format books, magazines, and music materials. The desire to fulfill the NLS’s tagline “that all may read,” has a long history. The concept of a national library for the blind at the Library of Congress surfaced in 1897, and Congress officially established the National Library Service in 1931 (NLS, History).

The National Library Service coordinates its resources and services through a national network of 55 cooperating libraries with one in each state plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands. Staff at these regional libraries assist with the application to determine eligibility for the program and sign up patrons to access the special format braille and “talking books,” magazines, and music scores and educational materials (NLS, Find Your Library).

During the 2017 American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago, I visited the Library of Congress exhibit and met Neil Bernstein, a research and development officer for the National Library Service. To gain a better understanding of NLS’s resources, services, and operations, I recently interviewed Neil. Here’s what I learned:

  • Eligibility: To be considered eligible for NLS resources and services, applicants must be certified by a “competent authority” to be blind, have a visual impairment that precludes their reading standard print materials, unable to physically use print materials, or have “a reading disability resulting from organic dysfunction and of sufficient severity to prevent their reading printed material in a normal manner” (NLS, Eligibility). More detailed specific requirements for eligibility, the definition of a competent authority, and residency requirements are found here.
  • Resources: NLS has converted about 100,000 books such as best sellers, biographies, histories, cookbooks, and other genres, including children’s and young adult books, into braille and audio format. About 100 magazines are also accessible to NLS patrons. The NLS has the world’s largest collection of braille music scores for voice, piano, and other instruments as well as music appreciation and instructional materials. There is also a growing collection of audio and Braille books in foreign languages including Spanish, French, German, and Russian (NLS, Foreign Language Materials). There are multiple ways to learn about specific resources: regional libraries offer readers’ advisory services, there is an online catalog, and “Talking Book Topics,” a large print catalog, is published every two months (Bernstein). There is no cost to eligible patrons for borrowing any NLS resources.
  • Equipment: The NLS program provides digital audio book players free of charge to patrons for listening to the “talking books” audio cartridges. Patrons can also download braille, audio books, and music scores using the BARD (Braille Audio Reading Download) mobile app available for their smartphones free of change in the App Store for iOS, in the Play Store for Android, and in the Amazon App Store for Kindle Fire tablets. BARD is also available via the Internet (Bernstein/Adams).
  • Delivery Methods: Resources such as large volumes of braille or audio cartridges are sent by postage-free mail from regional libraries, and return postage is also free. The BARD mobile app allows patrons to download audio books and braille materials (Bernstein/Adams).
  • School Library Institutional Deposit Collection: Although the NLS encourages eligible individuals to sign up for its resources and services, school librarians can submit an “institution” application to receive a deposit collection without charge for use by NLS-eligible students. Having a deposit collection allows eligible students with sight, physical, and reading disabilities to browse these local resources while their peers seek materials in the school library’s regular collection. Schools that hold a deposit collection must recertify annually (Bernstein/Adams).
  • Other Sources of Materials for Students with Special Needs: There are other sources of special format materials for students with sight, physical, and reading disabilities.
    • Learning Ally: Requiring a registration fee and annual fee, Learning Ally lends textbooks and other materials to students who are blind, visually impaired, or dyslexic.
    • Bookshare: Digital books are provided at no cost to students with qualifying visual, physical, and learning disabilities (NLS, Textbooks). For more information on Bookshare, read my October 2015 blog.
  • What’s New? The NLS is always striving to improve its services and patrons’ reading experiences. According to Neil, his department is currently developing specifications for a refreshable braille display that can be paired with a smartphone or laptop or as a stand-alone to allow blind individuals to download and read braille, for example, while traveling on a bus or train (Bernstein/Adams). NLS is also in the early stages of a project with the Amazon Echo.  Neil says, “We are hoping to allow patrons to search and browse the NLS catalog via the Echo device and to add reading materials to their wish list on BARD, which functions as a sort of a reading queue” (Bernstein).

The long ago dream of providing a library for the blind has been realized and expanded to include those with partial sight, physical disabilities, and some individuals with reading disabilities. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped has fulfilled its mission to young and old alike: “that all may read.” According to Neil, “The most fulfilling aspect of working at NLS is knowing that we change people’s lives for the better. We often get letters from new program patrons who, having lost their sight later in life, thought they’d never read again. They discover our service and consider it a lifeline back to the world of books and information, something they thought they’d be separated from forever” (Bernstein). 


Adams, Helen R. “Interview with Neil Bernstein.” November 22, 2017. Adobe Connect.

Bernstein, Neil. Email message to author, November 27, 2017.

National Library Service. “Eligibility.” (accessed 11-23-2017).

National Library Service. “Find Your Library.” (accessed 11-23-2017).

National Library Service. “Foreign Language Materials.” (accessed 11-24-2017).

National Library Service. “History.” (accessed 11-23-2017).

National Library Service. “Textbooks.” (accessed 11-24-2017).


National Library Service for the Blind & Physically Handicapped. Library of Congress. “That All May Read” logo. Used with permission.

Image of Neil Bernstein provided by Helen Adams.




Author: Helen Adams

A former school librarian in Wisconsin, Helen Adams is an online senior lecturer for Antioch University-Seattle in the areas of intellectual freedom, privacy, library ethics, and copyright. A member of the AASL Knowledge Quest Advisory Board, the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee, and a KQ blogger, she is the author of Protecting Intellectual Freedom and Privacy in Your School Library (Libraries Unlimited, 2013) and contributor to The Many Faces of School Library Leadership (2nd edition, Libraries Unlimited, 2017). Email:

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Intellectual Freedom

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1 reply

  1. I don’t know what I would do without books that I can listen to. Rheumatoid arthritis has made it impossible for me to hold a book or to turn the pages. I was an English teacher and a lifelong lover of books. The ability to get books on cartridge allows me to continue to read and has made my life so much better than I ever thought it could be again. Thank you what you do.

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