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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

The Danish Model of Library Services to the Printhandicapped

Johannes Balslev
County Library of Rive Amt
Esjberg, Denmark


A few years ago, a prominent Danish futurologist gave a group of head librarians the advice that in future, they should design their library services on the basis of the needs of society’s formal and informal Establishment. Forming an alliance with the power base would guarantee that resources would continue to allocated for continued library operations. In contrast, courting the weakest members of society was pointless, and would only lead to the marginalisation of the libraries.

This advice came as a shock to us in the audience, because it stood in stark contrast to the principles that serve as the foundation of Danish library legislation. In addition to their roots in information and cultural policy, these principles have social overtones. Danish library legislation is based on the premise that library services are for EVERYONE regardless of place of residence, intellect, age, language, political and religious conviction - and disability. Minority groups of all kinds must be considered in the selection of materials, by extending opening hours, and through a well-developed library network with special service arrangements for the physically disabled, and so on. Additional legislation attempts to influence the design of libraries so that users confined to wheelchairs also have easy access to the various services provided. In fact, one might almost gain the momentary impression that more regard is paid to the weak in Danish society than to ordinary users.

The latest revision of the Danish Public Libraries Act in 1993 continues this line. The act has given talking books the same status as other books.

In the following, I will briefly review how I, a county librarian with no special involvement in the disability area, have experienced this development towards providing people with printhandicaps equal access to library services.

There are actually many similarities in developing the access to borrow books and to borrow talking books. In the infancy of the public libraries - before they had amassed a broad range of titles - the individual citizen was allowed to borrow books by post from the public libraries. Until 1976, blind or printhandicapped people also had this option, but from The Danish National Library for the Blind - called DBB for short. DBB’s resources were severely limited, which meant that there was often a long wait for new and popular titles, whether they were talking books or Braille. More often than not, the books supplied by DBB were a mixed selection of varying interest to the borrower, and in any case had to be returned to the library before the borrower was allowed a new supply. The system was frustrating in several ways. For one, in certain periods borrowers received books they weren’t very interested in. For another, borrowers were without reading matter between deliveries. And finally, only people with a severe reading disability were allowed to be part of the system.

The contrast between services to blind and printhandicapped people and those to ordinary library users grew dramatically. Since the 1960s, statistical studies have shown a growing interest in public libraries among the population. (Today as much as 80% of the population uses the library.) This interest is the result of continuous focus on designing library services as a genuine option for all groups in the population. Therefore, it was only natural to develop the service to include people with printhandicaps.

Librarians noticed that faithful library users stopped coming to the library when age weakened their sight. A natural consequence of this observation was to start producing large-print publications using typography and paper that provided optimal reading conditions. The public libraries co-operated in selecting titles, and advance orders helped determine the size of circulation, which reduced costs.

Many public libraries supplemented this new service by purchasing reading aids and arranging exhibitions with various types of techniques to promote optimal lighting, increase type size and relieve the practical problems connected with handling the books. In the 1970s in Denmark, product development was rapid in the handicap aids area in general. (Today there are nation-wide centres for handicap aids and appliances which employ special consultants, although not in the library sector.)

Thus taking the next step and having talking books on the shelves of the public libraries was not far away, although a number of barriers had to be crossed first. First and foremost, agreements had to be made with copyright owners, before talking books could be produced and made available through the public libraries. Secondly, a reasonable financial basis had to be established for publication.

Financing was and continues to be a sensitive problem. With such a small language group as the Danish and with a correspondingly small number of blind Danish speakers, talking book circulation is necessarily limited. Since talking books are expensive to produce in the first place, the cost of each talking book is very high indeed.

Only about 40 blind people live in a typical Danish municipality. Consequently, there will always be only a few potential borrowers for a very expensive and yet modest talking book collection based on blind people alone. And naturally, not everyone will be interested in every title selected. Thus only the largest public libraries are in a position to make the purchase of talking books a reasonably sound financial proposition.

I do not believe that the decentralisation of talking book service would have prevailed if the copyright owners had not signed an agreement that talking books could be used by people other than blind people. In the first instance, the agreement allowed talking books to be lent to everyone with a printhandicap. In addition to the blind, this meant people with visual impairment, and people with dyslexia and other reading disabilities. This provided a considerably larger target group and greater demand for individual titles, thus ensuring a reasonable return on the money spent to purchase talking books.

The situation was improved even further when an agreement was made with copyright owners so that everyone, with or without handicap, could use the talking books. This meant that talking books could now be used by long-distance lorry drivers and ordinary travellers in the tape decks of their vehicles, or listened to at home by people carrying out mundane household chores at the same time. Naturally, in the beginning, there was a certain reluctance on the part of some people with printhandicaps to share their talking books with others. However, it soon became obvious that ordinary readers selected talking books to only a very limited extent, while having this larger target group made it possible to offer a wide selection of titles locally.

Among adults, the dominant group of borrowers of the public libraries’ talking books are those who acquired their blindness late in life. Thus, most of them are avid readers who have been cut off from normal reading by age, and now have more time for reading than they did when they were working. This group also grew up with the audio media known as the radio, which used to air serialised dramas in the old days. For elderly people living alone, talking books have the psychological benefit of being ‘a voice in the room’, and an alternative to the radio.

However, the fact that the primary target group was elderly people for whom a cassette player meant ‘foreign technology’ also caused problems in the beginning. For the first, very few of them owned cassette players. Secondly, they didn’t know how to operate them, and they were not highly motivated to find out. A great deal of persuasion and a wide range of pedagogical tools had to be employed before this group of elderly people with acquired blindness began to take advantage of the talking book service. A big help in generating interest was the development of simple cassette players that could be operated with a minimum of technical know-how - so-called ‘toasters’. Secondly, numerous libraries, sometimes through sponsors or donations, purchased cassette players and lent them to borrowers for a period of time, so that they did not have to invest in a cassette player without knowing whether it would be a success.

The adult group was not alone in taking advantage of the talking book service; a corresponding service was set up in the children’s departments in public libraries at the same time. There was a great deal of debate initially as to whether or not talking books should be made available to all children. Some people questioned the educational value of allowing children to ‘get away with’ listening to a book rather than investing energy in reading it and thus developing their reading skills. Other people thought it was more important for children with reading difficulties to have the opportunity for the same reading experiences as their friends who found reading easier. Reading policy met cultural policy head on and cultural policy won.

The special hybrid known as book + cassette could certainly be considered a compromise between the two views. The book + cassette combination contains the same title in both book and talking book form, sometimes at several speeds, allowing the user to train his or her reading skills. Even though the book + cassette combination is found most widely in lower schools, most public libraries also offer material in this form.

The book + cassette combination as well as talking books have also proved to be highly useful media in helping people with aphasia regain their reading ability. Unfortunately, the selection of titles for adults is modest, due to the severely limited target group.

The publishing houses that ventured into the production of ordinary books specially rewritten for youth and adult dyslexics have also had to admit that the sales opportunities on the Danish market are minimal. The result has been a highly limited production of titles, and thus the individual library has only been able to offer modest collections to this not insignificant target group. Naturally, people with dyslexia are also able to take advantage of talking book collections.

Equal library access for printhandicapped and ordinary readers requires that not only books but also other written materials at libraries be made available on an equal basis.

It is customary for Danish public libraries to supply printed catalogues and reading guidelines free to borrowers. Naturally, this has led to the production of catalogues in large type as well as in audio versions. The experience of public libraries with audio catalogues has not been very positive, as few borrowers have been sufficiently motivated to endure the difficult, boring process of learning how to find what they want using this method.

There has been far greater interest in talking versions of local newspaper coverage. DBB offers subscriptions to a nation-wide talking newspaper, but naturally, such a newspaper cannot cover local material. Conversely, there is no commercial basis to allow the production of local talking newspapers with the small circulation we are dealing with here.

Since the public libraries were now able to offer talking books, it was not long before they were asked to offer talking versions of local newspapers. Many municipalities and libraries were also interested, but since the material for the talking newspapers was often taken from local newspapers, producers quickly ran into difficult copyright negotiations. These problems have now been solved, and numerous libraries produce talking local newspapers, with librarians selecting material from local newspapers and supplementing it with municipal information. A special state subsidy has been helpful here.

The picture is highly varied from a national perspective. Not all municipalities offer talking newspapers. In some areas, talking newspapers are produced by an entity other than the library, while in others, librarians and volunteers work together on production. In still other areas, the library alone handles the task, possibly in co-operation with other municipalities. Nation-wide, there are about 7,000 subscriptions for talking newspapers through the libraries; however, regional differences are great.

Several of the most popular magazines are also available in talking versions, and are available by subscription at prices that correspond to ordinary publications. The libraries have purchased a few titles, but demand has not been great, which has dampened their interest in expanding selection. However, most magazines can be borrowed from DBB, The Danish National Library for the Blind, via the public libraries, for example.

One of the best features of the Danish library sector is its intensive networking. If one library does not own a title, efforts are made to borrow it from another library. This could be from the main library, which serves as a superstructure for the municipal libraries. Or it could be from a public library in a neighbouring municipality or from a public library in an entirely different part of the country. It could also be from one of Denmark’s research libraries or libraries with status as national libraries.

Until only a few years ago, networking was only fully operational for books - and not for talking books, for example. However, libraries that found themselves with a collection of talking books that all their borrowers had read sometimes exchanged collections with other libraries, which gave them the opportunity to present their borrowers with ‘new’ titles. Informal agreements were also made about reciprocal borrowing. However, the options were not improved radically until the main libraries received state grants to establish superstructure collections. In addition, some main libraries tried to co-ordinate purchases on a county-wide basis, in order to amass as wide a selection of titles as possible.

Even these regional efforts did not cover the demand for titles, although it helped when The Danish National Library for the Blind served as a nation-wide superstructure for the public libraries’ collections in 1990 - although only for disabled borrowers.

As I mentioned earlier, the Danish Public Libraries Act of 1993 established equal access for borrowing books and talking books. If a specific talking book is available in only one library in the country, any user anywhere is allowed to borrow it. However, several of the more specialised titles are only found at DBB, where registered users may borrow them directly. As mentioned, other printhandicapped users may borrow DBB’s talking books via the public libraries. In this connection, I should mention that the public libraries have electronic access to the catalogues of DBB and the other libraries.

It is only fair to add that printhandicapped people do not have full equality in terms of range of titles, when we compare talking books to ordinary books. Production is not parallel. Only the titles estimated to be of widest interest are selected - not specialised material, which in this case is usually trade literature. However, the situation is not hopeless for students or the employed who are blind or printhandicapped, as DBB and The Danish Institute for the Blind and Partially Sighted produce talking books on request.

DBB is the main producer of talking books. A few publishers have also released titles on the market, but with the exception of the book + cassette publications and fairy tales for children, the business is not lucrative, which makes commercial publishers cautious. Several campaigns have been run to generate sales to private customers, but the conclusion is that the libraries are about the only takers. Condensed books have never caught on in Denmark, so there is no market for condensed talking books either, as there is in the USA, for example.

As an aside, I can mention that a small non-profit organisation has used volunteers to produce several talking books, often on subjects of local historical interest. Quality has not always been the greatest, but then, it isn’t always on the ordinary book market either.

From all the above, you might be tempted to believe that we public librarians love talking books. However, if you ask library personnel, you will find the response disappointing. Talking books are less handy and more fragile than ordinary books. They are heavier, and have to be examined - perhaps rewound - when returned. The tapes and plastic cases break. Cassettes are put back in the wrong case by mistake, and when productions fill more than one cassette, it adds to the paperwork. In addition, it is rare that we can allow ourselves to ask for compensation for damages, as it is difficult to document neglect. Thus it is understandable enough when we hear that talking book collections give rise to a certain amount of irritation among librarians. At a time in which grants to libraries are being reduced, the purchase of every talking book title has to be considered carefully, knowing full well that it is possible to buy five ordinary books for the same amount of money.

Therefore, we are looking forward to the day when technology will allow us to offer printhandicapped people the same reading experience as people with normal sight, without having to rely on talking books. We are waiting rather impatiently for compact disc technology to become user-friendly for the printhandicapped, presumably in the form of CD-ROM. We are following the development of synthetic speech with great interest, and we are looking forward in particular to the day when people will be able to download the text they want to listen to from the Internet.

In the meantime, we live with talking books, talking magazines and talking newspapers - against our better judgement and sense of economic reality. It is my impression that largely every public library in the country practices positive discrimination on behalf of the printhandicapped, as an expression of the social tradition and dimension tied to the public library sector.

In all fairness, I should also mention that we do not consider blind people to be a ‘weak’ group in society. Blind people have managed to attract political attention through their strong organisation and lobbying efforts. Thus when library budgets are cut, it is rare that the handicap area is touched. This benefits people with dyslexia and other reading difficulties, whose organisations do not have the same clout.

So in a way, that futurologist to whom I referred in my introduction was right. By joining forces with strong handicap organisations, Danish public libraries have been able to build a service that not only has no competition, but also enjoys wide political support for as long as it should be necessary. Without these strong organisations, we would not have come as far as we have today in terms of library services to people with printhandicaps.