Washington Talking Book & Braille Library (Seattle)

  • By David Wilma and Traci Timmons
  • Posted 7/23/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 4155
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The Washington Talking Book & Braille Library (WTBBL) is a program of the Washington State Library, a division of the Washington Office of the Secretary of State. Located in Seattle, WTBBL provides library services state-wide, via in-person visits to the library, by phone, mail, email, and the internet to any Washington resident unable to read standard print material due to blindness, visual impairment, DeafBlindness, physical disability (cannot hold a book or turn pages), or reading disability. WTBBL was born from an early Seattle Public Library program when it began serving blind readers throughout the state with braille books and magazines. Through the years, book formats underwent significant changes, and the library has continued to keep pace with technological developments. Programming evolved from simple reference services to robust youth, adult, and senior programs, radio and, most recently, podcasting programs. Volunteers have played an essential role from the earliest days, transcribing books into braille, recording books onto reel-to-reel tape and cassette, and later producing electronic braille books and audiobooks. After nearly 120 years, the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library continues to serve thousands across Washington by offering hundreds of thousands of titles in large print, braille, and audiobook formats.

Reading Technology for the Blind

In 1906, the Seattle Public Library (SPL) began service to blind individuals in Washington who read braille. By 1907, SPL stocked magazines in braille, and began to circulate embossed braille books. Books for the blind were expensive. The braille version of Little Women was four volumes and cost $14 (about $450 in 2023 dollars). Only a large library system such as Seattle's could afford to stock them. 

The U.S. Post Office handled books for the blind free of postage via the “Free Matter for the Blind” program established by Congress in 1904, making it feasible for the library to circulate materials to any blind reader in the state who wanted to read. By 1912, the library had 370 titles regularly used by 137 borrowers throughout the state. In 1912, a gift of $500 allowed the library to expand its collection further. Although only about three titles per week were being circulated, the library trustees and management considered this an important service.

The biggest challenge to building circulation in the 1910s was locating readers. Seattle librarians wrote to other librarians around the state asking for the names of people who would benefit from the service. They used records of the 1910 U.S. Census to identify persons listed as blind. Each received a letter offering a list of books available for loan. Circulation doubled in 1915, and almost doubled again the following year.

A Regional Resource

In 1919, SPL established a Blind Division as part of the its circulation department, and Stephanie “Fanny” (Reynolds) Howley (1887-1973) became its head (and only staff member). Howley would run the department for the next 34 years. She organized volunteers from the Junior League, the American Red Cross, and the Seattle Council of Jewish Women into a transcription service in which books in braille were produced locally. The volunteer component of Seattle's Library for the Blind is an aspect of the service that continues to this day. The Blind Division worked out of cramped space on the second floor of the Carnegie Central Library.

Librarian Howley also started twice-weekly reading classes with student volunteers from the University of Washington. The classes and the library became an important meeting place for blind persons to discuss common concerns and to socialize.

The Talking Book

The Great Depression (1929-1939) was devastating for the Seattle Public Library. In 1932, it lost a quarter of its budget and at least 40 employees, plus the bookmobile, hospital services, and purchases of new books. Drusilla Dorland became acting librarian for the Blind Division from 1932-1937 (replacing Howley, who would return later). Despite poor economic times, in 1931 Congress passed the Pratt-Smoot Act, which provided funds to establish a national library service dedicated to serving the blind. This service, the Library of Congress’s Division for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, designated Seattle as one of 18 regional Libraries for the Blind (now the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled or NLS) and provided funds for new books. The Library for the Blind in Seattle serviced all of Washington, Alaska, and Montana with funding (most years) from the state legislatures.

In 1934, after copyright issues were resolved and technology improved, the “talking book” was introduced on special phonograph records that played at 33 1/3 rpm (commercial records at the time played at 78 rpm). Federal funds paid for both new titles and the playback machines. The machines were shipped free of charge to borrowers (talking books could not be played on regular phonographs which used different styluses). Readers without electricity could receive battery-operated machines. To qualify for the service, a person had to be unable to see at 20 feet a thing a sighted person could see at 200 feet. The talking book proved immensely popular because borrowers did not have to learn a new alphabet.

By 1935, 27 book titles – including the four Christian Gospels, historical documents, and a variety of Shakespeare’s works –became available through the program on phonograph records. A single talking book might occupy as many as 15 or 20 double-sided record disks. The Holy Bible took up 169 records, but these were never loaned all at once. The records were packaged in reusable cardboard containers bound by straps. A card with the addressee's information on one side was slipped into a slot on the box. For return, the card was reversed to display the library's address. Each book weighed from eight to 15 pounds. Readers submitted their requests by mail, or they appeared in person. Librarians kept track of borrowers' interests and what they had read, so that if a title was unavailable, something else the reader might enjoy was shipped.

More Books, More Room

Under Howley, who returned as librarian in 1937, the Library for the Blind was moved from SPL’s Carnegie Library downtown into the basement auditorium of the Fremont Branch in 1945. Although there was more room than at the main library, the space was still cramped. In addition, the heavy talking books and multi-volume braille titles – 50 to 100 daily, one loaded mail truck – had to be hauled up and down the stairs and out over the front walkway to the curb. Some borrowers found visits to the branch library cumbersome because of the streetcar transfers and because the branch was hard for them to find.

Howley retired in 1952 and Florence Grannis (1952-1960) took over as librarian. This same year, due to an amendment to the Pratt-Smoot Act, the NLS program expanded its services to include those to children. In 1954, the Library for the Blind moved to a specially designed space in the Henry Library on Capitol Hill. The new location provided room for more transcription services and better access for the daily mail. More talking book titles for children became available and the library began to offer story hours specifically designed for blind children. Three full-time and four part-time staff members were assisted by as many as 70 volunteers who handled a full range of jobs including receiving mail, preparing books for shipment, and transcription.

A committee at the Library of Congress chose which books were published and recorded for the blind, but Northwest readers were also interested in local topics. The Library for the Blind transcribed works by Northwest authors and works about the Northwest. Volunteers worked with braille machines to produce the embossed pages that were bound into books. Other volunteers read from books in special studios to produce talking books and textbooks. Talking books accounted for two thirds of the library's collection and 90 percent of the circulation.

Better Reading Through Better Technology

Grannis left the library in 1960, taking the helm of the Iowa Library for the Blind. Marcia Finseth (1960-1974) took the reins, leading the library through its next technological advancement. The 1960s saw the use of magnetic tape for talking books, but the real breakthrough came late in the decade with the invention of the cassette. These small reel-to-reel tapes were far more compact than a box of records and could be mailed and used without touching the tape itself. The cassette books differed from commercially available books on tape in that the cassette books were not abridged and they required special playback machines with controls designed for the blind. As with the books on records, the playback machines were provided free to borrowers and shipped via Free Matter.

In 1962, the NLS began circulating musical scores and other instructional music materials. Long-playing records got a technological boost when, in that same year, they were redesigned to play at 16 2/3 rpm, down from 33 1/3. This halved the size of books that were mailed (and carried). Borrowers were provided with two-speed machines to accommodate both formats. Later developments reduced the speed further to 8 1/3 rpm on flexible disks. The talking books on records and flexible disks endured through the rest of the century and were finally pulled from service in 2001.

In the 1960s, the library began to serve persons whose disability prevented them from turning the pages of a book. A borrower did not have to be legally blind to use the library's services. Montana formed its own talking book library in 1968 and Alaska did the same in 1973, but retained some assistance from the Washington-based library until 1976. That same year, the name in Seattle changed to the Washington Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

On the Air

In 1973, the library moved into a bigger space with the King County Library at 811 Harrison Street near downtown Seattle. On March 22, 1973, the Radio Talking Book Service took to the air, being one of the earliest radio reading services launched nationally, following the formation of the Minnesota Radio Reading Service. Volunteers and staff broadcast books, newspapers, and magazines eight hours a day to blind patrons across the state. Listeners used special receivers (provided free) to pick up the signal. This service was particularly valuable to persons who could not operate a phonograph or a cassette player. The U.S. Government funded the new service under the Handicapped and Elderly Learning Program. By the end of the year, programming filled 106 hours a week.

In 1974, Marcia Finseth retired, and Sharon Hammer became the Regional Librarian. In 1977, the Radio Talking Book Service became the Radio Reading Service. A gift from the University Lions Club allowed the library to buy 283 receivers and to eliminate a one-and-a-half year waiting list. On April 25, 1983, it became the Evergreen Radio Reading Service (ERRS) as the programming branched out across the state. Evergreen broadcasted to transmitters in Seattle (KUOW), Spokane (radio station KPBX FM) and the Tri-Cities (KFAE), and patrons within range could hear the station on specially pre-tuned “second band” receivers provided free to eligible listeners.

The service was run by library staff and more than 100 volunteers, with readers including former news broadcasters, actors, voice professionals, and others who passed a rigorous audition and training program. In addition to the book and periodical readings, the broadcast content included talk shows, “Literary News,” author interviews, and other diversely themed programs, such as a local “This Day in Rock” feature and a “Morning Stretch” program brought in from another reading service. ERRS programs focused on a wide range of topics and perspectives, including National Braille Press, Lighthouse for the Blind, Seattle Public Library’s LEAP program, KUOW-FM’s “Swing Years” music show, Jack Straw’s Blind Youth Audio Project, paratransit options across Washington, civil rights, National Volunteer Week, arts festivals in the region, and conversations with WTBBL staff and volunteers. This service would run through the early 2010s.

Second Audio Program (SAP) was a feature added to a television signal so that the vision-impaired could hear a description of the picture on the screen in addition to hearing dialogue. This feature was added to the signal from KTCS-TV November 1992 to August 2001 (when an equipment upgrade proved incompatible with the service).

Moving Ahead

Things were ramping up for the library. The new location on Harrison Street provided the infrastructure for volunteers to record 350 books a year. A nine-month braille transcription course was offered for free at the library, which gave volunteers the skills they needed to transcribe a larger number of braille books.

Funding for the Washington Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped shifted to the State of Washington in 1975, and the Seattle Public Library’s role became a contractual service to the Washington State Library, based in Olympia. And in 1978, Jan Ames (1979-2002) became the interim Regional Librarian, and then in 1979 became Library Director.

In 1983, the lease with the King County Library expired and the library moved again. With the help of the National Guard and the Boeing Company, the library moved its collection and took over the former S. L. Savage automobile dealership at 9th Avenue and Lenora Street. The new space allowed for more transcription and broadcast studios, more room for stacks and equipment repair, and room for new children’s programming. Circulation became automated and, with the inclusion of adaptive technology, blind staff members were able to use the system.

On January 1, 1994, the name changed to the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library (WTBBL). Shortly thereafter, in 1996, a state grant was awarded to renovate the Savage building and the library moved into temporary facilities at 717 Virginia Street (the Love Building). After a year of construction work, WTBBL returned and re-opened to the public on August 4, 1997. As part of the remodel, the entrance and address changed to 2021 9th Avenue. The library space continued to occupy the first floor, but a new dock area on the second floor and parking space were acquired.

In 2002, Jan Ames retired. By this time, the library offered a wide array of services for the blind and print-disabled with the help of more than 400 volunteers:

  • Cassette books
  • Repairs of cassette book players
  • Transcription of books into braille
  • Narration of books onto cassette
  • Evergreen Radio Reading Service - programming 24 hours a day
  • Large print books
  • Deposit collections at libraries, schools, senior centers, and long-term care facilities around the state
  • Online catalogue
  • Disability-focused reference services
  • Services available to those who were legally blind, DeafBlind, visually impaired (cannot easily read conventional size print), physically disabled, or reading disabled.

The Orrico Children's Room at the library offered a space where young children had access to games, books, and toys that emphasized tactile sensations. The children’s library collection included print/braille books – printed titles where braille overlay had been added. These books were used by parents reading to blind children who could experience the braille alphabet, or by blind parents reading to sighted children. 

Volunteers at the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library served in almost every function. Trained volunteer teams repaired talking book machines, while other volunteers examined talking books returned by borrowers to ensure that all the cassettes were in good working order. Volunteers narrated talking books and monitored for quality control. The on-air talent of the 24-hour Evergreen Radio Reading Service consisted entirely of volunteers.

Administrative and Technological Changes

In April 2008, Danielle Miller was hired by the Washington State Library/Office of the Secretary of State as Director in anticipation of a full transition of the library from the Seattle Public Library to that of the State. On July 1, 2008, the administration of the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library officially became a program of the Washington State Library.

Just prior to this, the last NLS-produced cassette machine was produced in 2007, with the last cassette book following soon after. Digital talking book players started replacing analog cassette players in 2009. These new machines played files that utilized the Digital Accessible Information specification (DAISY 2.0+), a set of conventions requiring that digital markers be placed in audio files to indicate the location of chapters, acknowledgements, author's bio, and other book matter. Users could navigate to a specific part of a book by utilizing the buttons on the player.The machines played an NLS-specified file format within the AMR-WB+ codec, but would eventually read MP3, MPEG, RIFF, and WAV file formats as well. Books were stored on a USB drive embedded in a digital cartridge that could be inserted into the player. WTBBL issued its first digital talking book players to patrons in 2009. Initially, cartridges carried one talking book.

During this time, WTBBL was actively producing audiobooks for this new format, with an emphasis on books written by Northwest authors or about Northwest subjects, and began to make those books available for download on WTBBL’s website. WTBBL was the first library in the NLS network to offer such a service. Later in 2009, talking books became even more accessible when the NLS launched BARD – the Braille and Audio Reading Download service. The following year, downloading audiobooks via the BARD website became available to all WTBBL patrons. Downloadable electronic braille books followed in 2012.

On June 18, 2010, Miller, Jan Walsh, Washington State Librarian, and Sue Ammeter, WTBBL Patron Advisory Council Chair, received the NLS “Network Library of the Year” award for 2009. This award commended a regional library for excellence, innovation, and special achievement in providing library services to blind and physically handicapped individuals. Following on this accolade, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn proclaimed June 5, 2012 as “Washington Talking Book & Braille Library Day.” WTBBL was honored with the Mayor’s Award for its work empowering individuals with disabilities. An official proclamation was presented to Miller and Quincy Daniels, WTBBL patron, in print and braille.

In 2013, NLS released a BARD app for iOS devices, followed in 2015 by a BARD app for Android devices. WTBBL patrons had access to digital talking books through two versions of the digital talking book player as well as smart phones and tablets. By this time, WTBBL’s physical collection – embossed, print/braille, and large print collections – numbered in the tens of thousands. WTBBL circulated its one millionth talking book on digital cartridge, Dancing to the Concertina’s Tune by Jan Walker, in 2014. Around this time period, the last cassette books were sent to patrons, concluding 40-plus years of circulation, and the library posted its first locally produced digital talking book to BARD, The Alpine Journey by Washington author Mary Daheim. Readers nationwide had instant access to audiobooks produced at WTBBL studios.

On May 19, 2017, WTBBL was again honored with the NLS “Network Library of the Year” award. Miller, now WTBBL Director and Regional Librarian, and Washington State Librarian, Cindy Aden, accepted WTBBL’s award for 2016 from Karen Keninger in a Library of Congress ceremony. WTBBL was routinely producing up to 200 audiobooks per year and tens of braille titles focused on Northwest authors and subjects. It was circulating tens of thousands of titles, as well as numerous machines, and a great variety of adaptive equipment, to thousands of blind and print-disabled Washingtonians.

The turn of the century brought exciting changes and new services for WTBBL’s patrons. The United States became a party to the World Intellectual Property Organization-administered Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled in 2019. This facilitated the cross-border exchange of books in accessible formats and expanded the number of foreign-language books available to people using WTBBL’s services. In 2020, eReaders (or refreshable braille displays) were tested by the newly renamed National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. By the following year, the program was expanded fulfilling NLS’s longtime goal of “providing a device to patrons who read braille but couldn’t afford expensive commercial refreshable braille displays” (NLS, Timeline). WTBBL’s braille readers were able to receive these devices and have them shipped to their homes via the Free Matter postal program.

In 2020, WTBBL converted its circulation program to Duplication on Demand (DoD), which allowed the library to be more responsive to patron requests and included multiple titles on digital talking book player cartridges. Patrons could now receive up to 25 books on a single cartridge, providing nearly 100 hours of listening. Importantly, NLS changed its regulatory language to expand certifying authorities which created easier pathways for people with reading disabilities, such as dyslexia, to qualify for WTBBL’s free services. WTBBL further expanded its services when, in 2022, it began converting its main analog recording studio to a fully digital one in preparation for a podcasting and videocasting program.

On May 18, 2022, the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library received its third NLS “Network Library of the Year” award, an unprecedented achievement. In its presentation of the award, NLS acknowledged the library for serving more than 7,200 patrons throughout Washington and exemplifying change management in its transition to the Duplication on Demand service model. It had hired staff to develop relationships with public libraries, service organizations, retirement homes and care facilities state-wide, and to work with optometrists and ophthalmologists throughout the state – acting as partners in getting patients with qualifying services signed up for WTBBL's programs. WTBBL partnered with the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind to deliver closed-circuit television video magnifiers (CCTVs) to patrons with low vision and it was one of the first NLS network libraries to test the refreshable braille display, or eReader. Director and Regional Librarian Danielle Miller said: “We are very committed to spreading the word about WTBBL and NLS services, improving access to reading materials and connecting as many people as possible with the service – and, once they are patrons, ensuring their service is prompt and they have all the support they need from day one” (Layman).


Annual Report for the Seattle Public Library, 1919 to 2001; Elizabeth Wright Evans, "Talking Books," The Seattle Sunday Times, June 7, 1959, Magazine Section, p. 4; Byron Fish, "Library for Blind Has Huge Work Load," The Seattle Times, March 29, 1954, p. 17; Vince O'Keefe, "An Exclusive Network and a Dandy Host," Ibid., July 22, 1973, p. D-1; Byron Fish, "Volunteers Needed to Help Library Serve NW Blind," Ibid., October 29, 1956, newsclipping in Seattle Public Library Archives; "Library for Blind Needs Volunteers," newsclipping, September 20, 1957, Ibid.; "Volunteers Turn Sight Into Sound," Globe-News, August 4, 1973, newsclipping; "Library Receives New Magazine," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 26, 1907, p. 4; "Library for the Blind -- Papers," folder, Seattle Public Library Archives (hereafter SPL Archives); "Library for the Blind -- Papers, 1949-1957," folder, SPL Archives; "Library for the Blind -- Papers, 1959-1966," folder, SPL Archives; "Washington Talking Book and Braille Library," brochure, 2001, SPL Archives;; "Braille," Britannica CD 2000 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2002); "Biographical Sketch of William Bell Wait," The New York Institute for Special Education Website (www.nyise.org): Tyler Kaye, “History of the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library,” 2021, Washington Talking Book & Braille Library website, accessed June 10, 2023 (https://www.sos.wa.gov/washington-talking-book-braille-library/about-wtbbl/history-washington-talking-book-braille-library); National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, “Free Matter for the Blind or Other Physically Handicapped Persons Mailing,” NLS website, accessed June 10, 2023 (https://www.loc.gov/nls/about/organization/laws-regulations/free-matter-blind-physically-handicapped-persons-mailing/); National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, “90th Anniversary of NLS (2021), Timeline,” NLS website, access June 10, 2023; National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, “About Us,” NLS website, accessed June 10, 2023 (https://www.loc.gov/nls/about/overview/); John Pai, “Radio Waves,” WTBBL Reading Matters (Fall/Holiday, 2011), p. 4; Mark Layman, "NLS Honors Washington State and Florida Libraries for Outstanding Service," NLS News, accessed June 10, 2023 (https://www.loc.gov/nls/about/news/quarterly-newsletter-news/news-april-june-2022/#library). Note: This entry was expanded and updated by co-author Traci Timmons and re-posted on July 23, 2023. 

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