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A Big Idea for a Big Society: equitable access for blind and partially sighted people

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The new minister for culture, Ed Vaizey, wasted no time since coming to power before indicating his support for public libraries. But he hasn’t gone as far as many would have liked, particularly those who want to see greater emphasis on the place of the book in the library.

Books have many forms, however, and, for one section of the community format is a critical factor in enabling access. Blind and partially sighted people did not feature on the minister’s radar on this occasion, but he is new to his post and one can give him the benefit of the doubt.

Public libraries provide many specific services to children, young adults, the elderly, to learners, orchestras, drama groups, businesses and to a wide range of people with disabilities. The provision of these services through public libraries depends on local authorities and their statutory obligation to fund and support them.

Mr Vaizey has sensed the opportunity presented by sub-regional and regional collaboration and shared services, but has missed the opportunity to harness the library network to deliver national programmes targeted at local special needs. The possibility of that leadership may now be compromised by the forthcoming demise of the Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), whose roles and responsibilities look set to be absorbed within the Arts Council.

But it could also be a good thing. The Arts Council has a strong record of achievement in arts and disability, and in supporting artists with disabilities. If it does assume responsibility it is likely to come to grips with these issues very quickly.

Meanwhile, in response to statements from the outgoing chief executive of the MLA, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has denied they have any intention of revoking legislation which stipulates local authorities should ensure that “facilities are available for the borrowing of, or reference to, books and other printed matter… to meet the general requirements and any special requirements both of adults and children”.

In the absence of national standards the challenge is to get that balance right.

Mr Vaizey has said it is not for government to come up with ideas through a centrally managed process, and then impose them as policy on the sector as a whole.

He may be right about local services which people value, but he misses the point about the need for a national programme in some areas. It’s the difference between an incrementalist, essentially local service, and a strategic service with local elements of delivery which are within the control of local authorities. It is the difference between disparate inefficiency and national innovation.

Access to materials has become easier too. Records of books in accessible formats have been incorporated into the integrated national catalogue, UnityUK. This is used for the purposes of interlending but it has now been made available to the public through WorldCat so that material in accessible formats can not only be discovered, but also located and requested by blind and partially sighted people.

There is still more to be done, however, as Robert Gent, Derbyshire’s assistant director of libraries, culture and heritage says, “If local authority library services undertook to add their data as well, the blind and partially sighted community would enjoy unprecedented access to a massive national network of resources.”

So much is happening in libraries for blind and partially sighted book lovers that the goal of inclusion need no longer be a pious hope. In Derbyshire, libraries facilitate listening groups, host talking books and newspapers, offer Braille and Moon transcription services and even produce recordings of titles of local interest.

For those wanting to use ICT, there are adaptive keyboards, image enhancement and voice output software. All this is achieved through regular liaison with the Derbyshire Association for the Blind and with other local user groups to check that the service is responding adequately to changing needs.

The building blocks are mostly there, it just needs leadership to provide the mortar to bind them together to ensure that an important step can be made towards equality of access to knowledge, ideas and information. The UK does lack the clarity of roles and responsibilities for stakeholders that exists in Belgium and the Netherlands and other countries. However, “integration” is the watchword at a time when the government is urging everyone to work together, to minimise duplication and bureaucracy.

This is also the thrust of the recently announced library support scheme (Future Libraries Programme) for collaborative specialist services for blind and partially sighted people.

As we all pick up the government’s digital champion Martha Lane Fox’s baton and the Race Online campaign to reduce digital exclusion by half a million by 2012, we should remember that the digital environment offers huge opportunities for improved access to knowledge for partially sighted people.

The organisations which can make that happen need to start talking, with a little more urgency, about how to bring it about. Perhaps then equitable access to library services for blind and partially sighted people, including books in accessible formats, will be a bright light flashing on Ed Vaizey’s radar as he leads libraries towards the heart of the digital agenda.

Rob Froud is a former head of cultural services, Somerset CC and a former president of the Society of Chief Librarians  

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