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

Bulgarian Libraries Bridging Information Gaps to Disadvantaged Persons

Dimitriyka N. Stefanova,
Research Worker,
St. st. Cyril and Methodius National Library,


Since the late 1980s a new topic in Bulgarian librarianship has been developing, and the Bulgarian National Library has initiated a new service area: library services to disadvantaged persons. This paper briefly describes the main trends and activities that have occurred during the period of 1990-1996: research projects; education and training of library staff; joint activities by the National Library and some public libraries; and international cooperative ventures.

The paper also describes the socalled "special" libraries, which serve specific groups of disadvantaged persons: prisoners, hospital patients, and visually impaired persons. Also included are the results from research during the 1990s showing the current level of library services to each of these groups.

The paper concentrates on the pioneering efforts of three large public libraries. The favorable as well as adverse conditions under which they operate are described, as are their service programmes to disadvantaged persons and the results of such programmes.


National Library

At the St. st. Cyril and Methodius National Library, systematic research on library services to persons with special needs began in the late 1980s. The document entitled Programme of Public Libraries Serving Disadvantaged Persons (1990) was the first result of research in this new field. During the period of 1990-1996, key activities in the area of library services to persons with special needs were:

  1. Research projects;

  2. Education and training of library staff;

  3. Joint activities of the National Library and some public libraries for serving disadvantaged persons;

  4. International cooperative ventures.

The following research reports are of particular interest: Bulgarian Prison Libraries (1992), Library Services to Disadvantaged Persons (1994), Library Services to Hospital Patients (1996), and Braille Books and Magazines in Bulgaria (1996).

The National Library offers continuing education to library staff in service to different groups of disadvantaged persons. A special course on how to serve these population groups has been introduced in the library school curricula. At the Sofia State University this course is elective, but at the Library College it is mandatory.

Since 1992 a specialist from the National Library has been a corresponding member of IFLA’s Section for Libraries Serving Disadvantaged Persons. In 1993 the National Library hosted the travelling exhibition Books for Disabled Young People , organised by the International Board on Books for Young People. Contacts have been established with libraries in other countries and materials have been received from the Gallaudet University Library (USA), Stockholm Public Library (Sweden), and Seattle Public Library (USA).

Until 1990 there were no laws in Bulgaria regulating library services to disadvantaged persons. Regretfully, during the period surveyed (1990-1996) no improvement in this sphere occurred. A new Library Law proposal, drafted in 1991-1992, has not yet been enacted by the government.

Special libraries

Special libraries serve visually impaired persons. The library of the National Society for the Blind "Louis Braille" was opened in Sofia in 1928. Currently it is the only library which provides readers with braille books and magazines. At the end of 1996, the library collection numbered 1763 titles of fiction for children and adults. Most of these titles are handwritten and available in one copy. Since 1995 the National Society of the Blind has been using electronic technology for braille books production. Readers living in Sofia (a total of 74) have materials delivered to their homes by car, whereas readers outside the city (a total of 20) receive materials at no cost through the mail. Affiliated with the Union of the Blind, a network of seven talking books libraries has been established. Sofia Library, opened in 1960, is central. At the end of 1996, it owned a collection of 4040 titles: fiction for children and adults, nonfiction, university textbooks, reference books and magazines. During the same year (1996), 213 readers borrowed 9834 items. Talking books and magazines are recorded in the studios of the Union of the Blind and are distributed to the network libraries free of charge. These libraries serve only members of the Union of the Blind.

The first hospital libraries were established in the1930s. According to current standards, they are special libraries serving medical specialists in their research and treatment practice. The survey Library Services to Hospital Patients (1996) showed the following situation:

  1. There are no standards for library services to hospital patients;

  2. Despite this lack of standards, 36 out of the 48 libraries surveyed indicated that they actually do serve patients during certain periods;

  3. The level of the service to hospital patients, compared with IFLA standards and the level of service in many other countries, is not satisfactory.

  4. The hospital libraries are not designed for library services to patients: staff is inadequate, and the library collection and available equipment cannot meet the needs of this user group;.

  5. Almost all the librarians surveyed consider services to hospital patients necessary.

The first legal document related to prison libraries appeared as a component of the Regional Prison Regulations from 1893. Another document with the title Bulgarian Prison Libraries (1992) reveals that libraries are operating in all 13 prisons and associated reformatories. Services and operations are generally described in the document entitled Enforcement Regulations of the Punishment Infliction Law (1990). Prisoners function as librarians. Library materials are selected by a representative of the administration. Usually prisoners are allowed visits to the library. At the present time, these prison libraries cannot meet IFLA’s high requirements. In 1996 a new Punishment Infliction Law was adopted. The regulations for its enforcement, now being prepared, include directives for prison libraries.

Research so far indicates the existence in Bulgaria of major obstacles to the development of adequate library services to disadvantaged persons, compared to other countries where professional librarianship is more highly developed. Remedial action could be most effective in the following areas:

  1. Improvement of all operational aspects of special libraries and those in the schools for impaired children;

  2. Involvement of public libraries in serving users with special needs.

Public libraries

Over the years, there have been sporadic activities by some public libraries aimed at disadvantaged users. For example, the previously mentioned survey of prison libraries indicated that six of them had contacts with public libraries, receiving library materials and technical assistance. Strategically planned activities, however, did not start until the 1990s under the initiative of the National Library. The libraries acting as “pioneers” in this effort operate under difficult circumstances, among other things:

  1. A severe economic crisis;

  2. The lack of official demographic/statistical information about perons with disabilities;

  3. The lack of official policies/recommendations for materials suitable for persons with disabilities;

  4. The lack of a library law as a basis for services to disadvantaged persons;

  5. The existence of architectural and transportation barriers, making access to libraries difficult for disabled persons.

There are, however, a few positive indicators:

  1. The attitude in our society to the problems of disabled persons is changing;

  2. Interest has been generated among library professionals in providing services to disadvantaged persons.

The first initiative was taken by the Montana Public Library. It signed a contract with the Union of the Blind for a two-year experiment (1994-1995). The library took responsibility for providing members of the Union of the Blind residing in its service region with a collection of talking books and magazines. This collection has been developed and is updated periodically by the Sofia Talking Books Library, which also provides technical assistance to the public library. Visually impaired persons have access to the entire library collection and all services. This experiment has been considered successful by the two contracting parties.

Shortly thereafter the Pazardjik Library entered into a two-year agreement (1995-1996) for joint activities with the National Library. This project contains seven steps, of which the first three stages of development are:

  1. Training of library staff;

  2. Defining various groups of disadvantaged persons within the town limits and assessing the level of library services provided;

  3. Developing a detailed service plan.

This plan for library services to disadvantaged persons is being prepared in collaboration with relevant state agencies and public organisations. The characteristics of each user group are defined as are the types and levels of service to be provided to each group within the town limit. Specific action plans related to each type of service are outlined covering collections, public services, physical facilities/equipment, and linkages with other town libraries.

A most interesting element of this project is that the Pazardjik Library applied to the Open Society Foundation for financial support and received a grant in the amount of one thousand US dollars. This money was used to establish talking book collections, purchase book for mentally handicapped children, and acquire professional literature for specialists working with disadvantaged persons.

Through the media, the library advertised its new free service: delivery of materials to the homes of isolated persons, blind, physically handicapped, and elderly people. Through the municipal agency for home service to isolated old persons, the library circulated 200 surveys requesting information on reading interests and desired services. Twenty wished to have library materials delivered to their homes. The isolated blind persons did not wish to make use of this service. The physically handicapped persons did not live alone but with family. Delivery of library materials is provided once a month by a professional librarian using a municipal car. The current condition of total impoverishment of the population and the growing criminality makes the recruitment and use of "library volunteers" non-feasible.

The library includes girls and boys from regular schools in its activities with impaired children. Such joint activities have a positive influence not only on the impaired children, but also on the healthy ones. The library also works with the local prison administration under a joint contract. The public library provides technical assistance to the prison library and selects and orders materials with funds allocated by the prison. In return for this work, the public library receives free repair services.

The news media have followed this project with great interest. Library activities are covered by the two local TV stations, Radio Pazardjik, the two local newspapers, as well as by reporters from national newspapers.

The evaluations of this two-year project by the National Library and the Pazardjik Public Library have been positive. In 1997 the Pazardjik Library is continuing its services to the disadvantaged population groups.

The third project of note is being implemented by the Dobrich Public Library. During 1990-1995, it gained much experience working with disadvantaged population groups. In 1996 the Dobrich Library signed a partnership contract with the National Library. Thanks to the library’s reputation for excellence and the cooperation of local authorities during the planning process, the project was modified to become a comprehensive social programme by the municipality for serving disadvantaged persons. Compared to the Pazardjik project, the Dobrich initiative has a broader scope, as it encompasses services to orphans and Gipsy children. This programme is long-range - its first phase will be completed when the term of the municipality mandate expires in the year 2000.

Much experience has been gained by the three public libraries involved in the above service programmes. But the benefits and influence extend far beyond the library community and can be summarized as follows:

  1. Theoretical concepts for the provision of library services to disadvantaged persons are being tested in practice;

  2. The quality of library services to users with special needs are being improved;

  3. Public attention is being drawn to the cultural and informational needs of certain population groups;

  4. Public awareness and sensitivity are being created regarding the rights and needs of disabled persons;

  5. Other public libraries can learn from the experience of the three “pioneering” libraries,