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

Library Service and Materials for Weak Readers

Gyda Skat Nielsen



The need of information and knowledge

In his Welcome Address to the IFLA Conference in Copenhagen the National Librarian, Morten Laursen Vig writes the following:

"Everywhere in the world of today men and women are in need of information and knowledge in order to meet the challenges of the Information Age." He also points out that access to information and knowledge seems to be among the basic driving forces for all human beings, enabling them to meet and to tackle their everyday life, whether speaking in terms of their professional or personal lives or their role as responsible citizens. The Danish National Librarian also points out that this depends heavily on the way in which access to knowledge and transfer of knowledge is provided.

The public libraries in all countries have a major responsibility that these wishes come true. But are the libraries ready to provide all citizens with information and knowledge?


Reading and writing difficulties (dyslexia) is a handicap affecting a very large number of people all over the world. The European Dyslexia Association estimates that about 7% of the populations in its member countries suffer from dyslexia. It means that only in the EU countries more than 25 million people have difficulties reading and writing. This is a very serious handicap in a world of letters. Dyslexia is also a difficult handicap because it is invisible. You can see if a person is blind or if he is missing a leg. But you don't know whether the person passing you in the street is dyslexic. Dyslexics mostly have a lot of traumas and defeats behind them - mainly aquired during their years in school.

A growing understanding of dyslexia

During these last years there has been a growing understanding in the Danish society of the problems related to reading and writing difficulties. Fortunately in the library world, too. Thanks to active parents of dyslexic children, adult dyslexics and professsionals in different fields more and more people openly admit that they have reading and spelling

problems. The fact that some famous persons like actors, artists and politicians have stepped forward and told about their reading problems has been of immense value. The public has become aware that dyslexics often are very skilled and intelligent persons coming from all parts of society.

These last years there has been a growing interest in the Danish press for dyslexia and other reading problems which of course has been of major benefit.

In the following I will focus on adults with reading problems because in my daily work I work with adult dyslexics. The importance of being aware of signs of dyslexia with young children and supporting them as early in their development as possible can not be emphasized enough but does not belong in this context.


Do dyslexics feel welcome in the public libraries?

It is important not to forget that many of the weak readers feel insecure and inadequate in a public library. For many the result is that they prefer to stay away. It is not unusual to hear a person suffering from dyslexia saying, "I don't go to the library because I don't want more frustrations". It may be difficult for us to understand that just entering a library can take an immense effort.

In relation to the big Dyslexia Campaign in Sweden a small book "Det var ju inte dum jag var" ("After all, I was not stupid") was published by four big Swedish libraries.

In the book a number of adult dyslexics tell about their experience with the public libraries. Their experiences indeed have not been very positive! Even in a country like Sweden which is well known for its excellent library system persons with reading difficulties meet a lot of frustrations in the public library.

It is the responsibility of the entire staff of the libraries to invite and receive the large number of citizens who are not so skilled readers in a decent way. We are often dealing with socially weak persons with a very low self-esteem. Some of them may even be unemployed because of their handicap. But we are also dealing with - and that is important to emphasize - persons with normal intelligence - some are even very intelligent and very creative.

Improvement in library staff awareness

It seems to me to be a tendency in many libraries to focus more on the well-functioning and well-educated borrowers than on the group of weak readers who frequently are regarded "troublesome" and difficult to handle. This may sound provocative but is never the less the truth. Without doubt the reason for this attitude mainly is inadequate information of the librarians - both during their basic education and later during their working life.

However there has been an increasing awareness during these last years in the Danish public libraries about reading difficulties. The Section for Outreach Services in the Union of Danish Librarians together with local librarians has arranged meetings and conferences on the weak readers and the public libraries.

The responsibility of each single library system

It is absolutely necessary that each library system makes an effort to inform its entire staff about the different handicaps which it may meet in the library - for example dyslexia.

A very good solution would be to invite a dyslexic person to come to the library to tell about his or her handicap and experiences as a library user.

In the Public Libraries of Søllerød north of Copenhagen where I work we have tried this a couple of times - and with great success. Listening to a handicapped person telling about his or her experiences in the library indeed is a worth-while experience.


For several years the Public Libraries of Søllerød has focused on the weak readers. And we have experienced that they are very difficult to get in contact with - for instance because they can not read the printed messages sent out by the library. In bringing out information to the weak readers one really depends on the good will of their relatives and friends to inform them.

In the Main Library of Søllerød we have a special section for borrowers with different reading handicaps - for instance dyslexia.

In the following I will tell about some of the specialized services that we provide.

Talking books

During the last many years thousands of books on cassettes have been produced by Danish publishing houses. These talking books on tape which are recorded in their full length can be borrowed from all public libraries in Denmark.

The talking books are not only used by all the handicap groups which are not able to read printed books but by everybody who prefers to get the information through hearing instead of seeing. The fact that everybody now listens to talking books has made it less "handicap-like" for the weak reader to use them.

The Danish National Library for the Blind some years ago opened its collections of talking books to persons with dyslexia inviting a representative of the Danish Dyslexia Associaiton to participate in one of its committees. Books from the Library for the Blind can be borrowed by dyslexics through the public libraries and are an important supplement to the books on tape bought by the public libraries.

Easy readers

For many years librarians and teachers have worked hard to persuade the publishers to produce more easy-to-read fiction and non-fiction material for weak readers - both children and adults. A number of easy readers are produced every year - but far from enough. Especially we need much more of these books for adults.

These easy readers can either be produced especially for the target group by writers in cooperation with reading specialists or they can be "usual" books which are abbreviated and partly rewritten in order to make them less complicated to read.

Some of them are published together with one or more tapes with the text. Sometimes the text is read in a moderate speed permitting the readers to read both with their eyes and ears at the same time and thus train their reading ability.

Periodicals on tape

There is also a need of access to other information than books. Different periodicals on tape - mostly produced by the Library for the Blind and bought by the public libaries - are of major interest to persons with reading difficulties. Without these taped magazines they would be prevented from following what is happening for instance within science, history, medicine, interior design and in the consumers' world.

Pamphlets and leaflets on tape

Every year the Library for the Blind produces a number of pamphlets and leaflets from the state, the counties and other authorities on tape. Most of these materials can be used in our library and of course play an important role in the information of our weak readers.

Newspapers on tape

Many Danish public library systems produce a weekly local newspaper on tape for reading handicapped persons: blind, weak-sighted, physically handicapped - and of course dyslexics and weak readers. To have the opportunity on equal terms with one's fellow citizens to take part in the life of the society where you live should be regarded a human right.

The Public Libraries of Søllerød was among the very first to start a newspaper on tape about 15 years ago. The paper is produced once a week, read in our studio, copied and send out by mail to about 70 persons. As all our other services to the handicapped the newspaper is free of charge.

Reading Service

About five years ago we started a Reading Service. This means that citizens with reading difficulties can bring personal letters, articles, instructions, official letters and other printed matters to the library where we will read it on tape.

Such Reading Services unfortunately only exists in very few public libraries until now.



Last year a local organization donated a substantial amount of money for equipment for different categories of reading handicapped borrowers in Søllerød. The donation enabled us among other things to buy a computer with a new Danish spelling programme called "Yak-Yak". This programme is extremely useful for persons with spelling problems. Thanks to its artificial intelligence and its synthetic speech even very dyslexic persons are able to produce manuscripts and letters. With a scanner the user is able to listen to the text of for instance a book.

Realizing that we do not have enough time to teach the users ourselves we arrange together with a special teacher courses how to use the programme. This service is free of charge.


Without doubt one of the important aids for dyslexics in the future will be the Internet. Like many other Danish public libraries The Søllerød Libraries offers access to Internet.


Although we have quite a number of CD-ROMs available we look much forward to the materials in Danish which is about to be produced especially for the weak readers.

With the fast technological development it is important to follow as closely as possible what is being published to get inspiration for the future work to create better "Access to information" for everybody.


I would like to raise the question, "How do we make it attractive for persons with different reading problems to visit our libraries? How do we make them feel welcome? And how can that be done within limited financial means?"

It has been discussed - also in my library - whether it is necessary to create a special section in the library for those with reading problems. "Wouldn't they be able to find the materials that they need among the usual books?" or "Wouldn't it be possible for them to turn to the staff to get some help?" have been some of the questions.

It is of major importance that the materials which appeal to persons with reading difficulties are placed together in a separate section which is located in a very central place in the library so they can be seen immediately when you enter the library. It is important that those who are unaccustomed to the library easily can find the desired information without having to inform about their handicap.

The signposting should be clear and the section should look inviting with a nice place to sit down and a tape recorder with earphones to use for selecting talking books.

This model can be used both in a very big and in smaller libraries. It does not take a lot of money to create a "haven" in the library for the weaker users. First of all it needs the good will of the staff.

"My own librarian"

To most dyslexics it would be of big help to have "their own librarian", a librarian with knowledge of reading disabilities and the materials available for this group of users.

Being aware of this fact we invite weak readers to come and meet "their" librarian in the Department for Outreach Services in the Main Library every Tuesday or by appointment. Everybody is welcome to come and have different kind of help - mainly finding the desired literature but also sometimes to get help to solve different problems like "Where do I turn to improve my reading ability?"

The "Dyslexia Officer" needs a broad contact to schools, local authorities and different institutions and associations like the local Dyslexia Associaiton to be able to assist the borrower appropriately.

Arrangements to inform and attract attention

To focus on reading disabilities we recently made a Dyslexia Campaign in cooperation with the Danish Dyslexia Association, a local boarding school for young dyslexics and several other institutions and organizations. Different lectures (among others by the Library for the Blind) and a "Market Place" with stands for about 10 organizations and institutions together with several articles in the local newspapers put focus on dyslexia and hopefully contributed to creating a better understanding and acceptance of the problems and needs of the weak readers. Of course the campaign also made the local politicians aware of the problems.

Word of caution

Don't expect that you will be overrun by weak readers when you open your library to them. Due to the many defeats they may have suffered throughout their life - especially during their school days - they may be very hesitant to go to the library. Don't forget: to many dyslexics it may be a major step to enter the public library. It is important that they are encouraged and received in the right way, that they find some relevant materials and that they feel welcome. If you fail only one time in this they will never return.


A lot of PR is needed - for instance articles and advertisements in the local papers and in the paper of the Dyslexia Association of your country (If a Dyslexia Association does not exist: what about being the "primus motor" in establishing one?). A folder telling what you have to offer is a "must". Don't forget to use a language which is easy to read (short sentences and not too difficult words) and a distinct lettering. Make your information material in co-operation with a reading specialist. And then: all information material addressing weak readers should be available on tape.


The European Dyslexia Association (EDA) which covers about 30 countries and regions in and outside Europe is planning an International Campaign during 1998 and 1999. The theme will be "Access to Information - a Necessity for Dyslexics".

One of the main partners during this Campaign will be the public libraries which have a responsibility to provide information to all citizens. In the near future the European Dyslexia Association will turn to the Library Associations in our member countries and invite to a close cooperation between the public libraries, EDA and the national Dyslexia Association. We will ask the Library Associations to appoint a Contact Person to be the link between the libraries and the Dyslexia Association. I regard the co-operation between the two IFLA Sections and the European Dyslexia Association to prepare this Workshop to be the first step for the future joint work for Access to Information for everybody.

April 15 1997