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62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996

The Development of National Strategies for Library Service for Blind and Print Handicapped People

Winnie Vitzansky
The Danish National Library for the Blind


The existence of a complete national strategy for library services for blind and print handicapped people is not a very common thing. In most countries - including my own - we have bits and pieces, developed over time and adding up to something which in reality becomes a national strategy. The reasons for this lack of strategic planning are many. One of the most important reasons is that tradi tionally library services for blind have been run outside the mainstream library system - not to mention the national library system! Also traditionally libraries for the blind have mainly been run by relatively unprofessional volunteer staff on a very low budget. The daily effort of meeting the most urgent user needs has been more than sufficient challenge for these services. And one may ask: Is it necessary to have a national strategy? What is the use of it? I beleive it is most important to develope a strategy in order to make it clear what your goals are. In reality I think that the fewer ressources we have the more necessary it is to have a strategy in order to know how to allocate the ressources in best possible way to reach the goals.


Outline Of The History And Structure Of Library Services For Blind And Print Handicapped People In Denmark

With these opening remarks I shall turn to the Danish situation, starting by giving you a brief overview of the history and structure of the library services to blind and print handicapped people. The library services to blind and visually handicapped people in Denmark date back to the late 19th. century, and as in most other countries it has its roots in the teaching of blind children. In 1924 The Danish National Library for the Blind (DBB) was founded as a state institution as part of The Royal Institute for the Blind (founded 1857), all under the auspices of the Ministry of Social Affairs. DBB became an independent institution in 1954. Till 1956 only the few hundred blind people who were able to read Braille had access to information and library services. But in 1956 the first talk ing book was produced by DBB (a few experiments had been made in the thirties, but were stopped by the Second World War). It was a hugh success. 9 years after the introduction of the talking book the number of borrowers at DBB had grown to 3,500. The hugh success became a hugh problem, as DBB did not get the resources necessary to meet the demand. In the early seventies the service level was a disaster. Parallel with this development the public libraries in Denmark experienced the greatest boom in their history. New services were introduced, new media became part of their collections, and consequently new target groups were reached. In this process the public librarians met the needy borrowers from DBB, and a demand for improvements rose in the library world. This led to a decision to decentralize library services to visually impaired persons, and in 1976 the public libraries bought their first talking book. During the eighties the public library system built up big collections of talking books, and in the same period DBB regained strength (and money). Unfortunately the decision of decentralization had not taken into account the need of coordination and central support, a nd this deficiency grew into a more and more obvious problem.

In 1985 it was therefore decided that DBB should be moved to The Ministry of Cultural Affairs in order to emphasize its connection with the library system, and also to stress the fact that library services to handicapped people is a cultural service as well as that to sighted people. In 1990 DBB became national library and formed the superstructure of all talking book lending in Denmark.Paralle l with this development The Refsnæsschool (The school for the blind children) and The Students' Library for the Blind at The Institute for the Blind have stayed responsible for the production of braille and audio material necessary to cater for the educational needs of blind children and students.

National Strategies For Library Services For Blind And Print Handicapped People In Denmark

As it appears from this historic overview the Danish development has not been characterized by a clear strategy for its library services to blind and print handicapped people - quite the contrary. But when you look a bit closer it becomes evident that the development over these hundred years actually has been governed by a number of national policy decisions. And the closer we come to the prese nt situation the more you can see the interaction between the policy decisions and the development of The Danish National Library for the Blind (DBB) and the public libraries in Denmark. In the following I shall list the most important decisions, and from this listing I will try to show you the consequences for the development of library services for blind and print handicapped people.

The Impact Of The National Strategies On The Library Services For Blind And Print Handicapped People

All these policy decisions from 1924 up to today have formed the basis on which we have developed our services. Some of course more than others, but they have all been important political indications to those who are running these services. The two first decisions from 1924 and 1954 initially created an independent governmental library service, on equal terms with other governmental library ser vices, and with a clear indication that the Danish society accepts that library services for the blind is a national responsibility. This was certainly not a common thing as early as 1924. As far as I know the Danish library for the blind must have been the first one to become governmental.After this nice start the library ran into deep trouble in the late 60'ies and early 70'ies. It was set up to cater for a small community of braille reading blind people, and then the technological development(talking books) changed everything and gave the much bigger group of elderly blind people a possibility of reading. The strategy was not designed for that kind of situation. The disadvantage of being governmental now applied to the library for the blind, as governments usually take their time i n adapting themselves to new situations.Therefore it was very natural for the process of decentralization to get started from The Danish Library Directorate. This has close contact public libraries, where the problems of the blind readers had become very visible.The report from 1973 addressed this urgent problem: the public libraries must be able to serve these readers as the library for the bli nd cannot, and talking books must be avail able for purchase by the public libraries. Therefore production has to be initiated outside the framework of the library for the blind. Unfortunately the report did not address the main problem: how to make the library for the blind function. So even though the goals of the report were reached:

In the early 1980'ies the need for a clearly defined strategy was urgent. The library for the blind had read the "Writing on the Wall", and had worked hard to gain credibility and to be ready to take upon itself the role as central coordinator. In order to achieve that the library for the blind had undergone big changes:

And equally important it had developed its main strategic goal: library services to blind and print handicapped people shall be of the same quality as that to non-handicapped people, and special format materials shall be treated on equal terms with all other materials. So when the new committe was appointed by The Danish Library Bureau in 1982 the library for the blind was ready to play its part , which it has done ever since.The goals I have listed from Report no. 950 have all been reached:

All together these many steps have resulted in one of the highest annual lendings of talking books in the world, namely more than 2 million talking book items from the public libraries and close to 700.000 from DBB (Denmark has 5 mill. inhabitants).The most recent development (The public Library Act, 1994 and the Copyright Act, 1995) have brought us a big step closer to having the DBB strategy of equal service standards to all borrowers widely accepted. By the appointment of a formal User Committe at DBB it is emphazised, that DBB has a responsibility of serving all print handicapped people, and it is emphazied as well, that this task can only be solved in close cooperation with the users themselves.This provides a very good basis for the work still to be done.

Strategies For Year 2000

The last issue I will address is the strategic planning at DBB for the next 3-4 years.This planning is closely connected to the 4-year contract we have signed with The Ministry of Culture in 1995. It is based on DBB's strategic work, which to a large extend is based on a large user survey, conducted in 1994.

The User Survey

The user survey was divided into 3 main groups of users:

The general finding of this survey is, that the borrowers of DBB are extremely happy with the service level, but not as happy with the supply of materials (especially Braille is a problem). As to the potential borrowers the survey showed that the need of audio materials is very substantial, but most physically handicapped people neither know the possibilities of DBB nor of the public libraries.F inally we learnt, that the average borrower of DBB is 73 years old, female, blind, and lives in the neighbourhood of Copenhagen!

The Strategy And The Contract 1995 -1998

As mentioned in my introduction we developed our strategy from the findings in the survey. And this strategy formed the basis for the contract we have made with The Ministry of Culture for the years 1995 - 1998.I shall not list all the items of the contract, but limit myself to emphasize some of the most important:
  • B shall enroll some of this potential borrowers as DBB-users
  • but more important DBB shall motivate the public libraries to serve these borrowers.
  • DBB shall create more user satisfaction through clearly defined objectives for each category of users.
  • DBB shall improve its services by implementing new technologies as for example electronic self service systems for catalogue search and book ordering.
  • DBB shall develop an electronic library.
  • DBB shall change its audio production from analog to digital technologies.

    Further more there are a number of goals of more internal interest, such as: development of IT- and communication strategies, organizational development, and development of quality standards, et al.DBB is very pleased with this contract, because first of all it binds us to reach the goals, and secondly it has provided us with extra resources, which enables us to undertake these many developments.

    Concluding Remarks

    In this paper I have tried to illustrate the development of a national strategy and its effect on the course of the history of the library services for the blind and print handicapped in Denmark. In retrospect it is very clear that the development at national level has been steered by the prevalent political trends, namely:

    At The Danish National Library for the Blind these policies have been incorporated in the strategy of the library, and expressed in the strategy of DBB:

    As demonstrated in this paper we have to a large extend succeeded in achieving the goals of the strategy, and the positive conseqences are obvious. Less obvious are some of the drawbacks. I shall mention some of them: And this brings me to a risky but tempting attempt of predicting the development in the near future:It is likely that the development we have initiated will lead to the public libraries doing most of the talking book lending, while DBB will concentrate on its role as a consultant, developer of new facilities, and as a producer. But if we look even further ahead the development of "The digital Li brary" may reverse the roles again and call for a change of strategy.Time will tell.But one thing is certain. We must develop clear strategies for the development we want, otherwise we will lose our way.In closing please allow me to quote for you some lines from Lewis Carroll: Alice in Wonderland, which in my opinion sum it up so nicely: When Alice has lost her way she meets the Cheshire Cat. S he asks the cat:
    "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
    "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the cat.So let's find out where we want to get to and make our strategies accordingly!


    Devadason, Shellatay: Vision for Visually Impaired Persons: Proposed framework for the development of guidelines for libraries serving VIP's in Malaysia. Presented at National Seminar on Vision for VIP's: Access to Information, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1994.King, Stephen P.: Looking forward at the RNIB.

    In Looking Ahead: A practical look at new developments in library and information services for visually impaired persons, VIP. Papers presented at the second international conference on library services to visually impaired persons, held at the University of Nottingham, Sutton Bonington Campus, 15-18 July 1994. Edited by Frank N. Hogg.

    Ulverscroft Large Print Books, 1994.Vitzansky, Winnie: Biblioteksbetjeningen afblinde i Danmark. In Erik Allerslev Jensen. Festskrift i anledning af 80 års dagen den 22. maj 1991. Statens Bibliotekstjeneste, 1991.

    Vitzansky, Winnie: Library Services to Blind and Print handicapped Persons in Denmark: The Danish Model. In Looking Ahead: A practical look at new developments in library and information services for visually impaired persons, VIP. Papers presented at the second international conference on library services to visually impaired persons, held at the University of Nottingham, Sutton Bonington Campus , 15-18 July 1994. Edited by Frank N. Hogg. Ulverscroft Large Print Books, 1994.Vitzansky, Winnie: Managing a National Library Service for Blind and Print handicapped persons. In Library Management, Managing National Resources Worldwide. Guest Editor: Graham Cornish. Volume 15, Number 7,1994.