German Libraries: A Portrait - North Rhine-Westphalia

The Audible Gate to the World: The West German Audio Book Library for the Blind

Magazin der Westdeutschen Blindenhörbücherei; © Westdeutsche BlindenhörbüchereiMagazine of the West German Audio Library for the Blind; © Westdeutsche BlindenhörbüchereiReading with the ears: for many blind and visually impaired people this means much more than only education, entertainment and the enjoyment of literature. It means be able to take part in the world. This participation is made possible by, among others, the West German Audio Book Library for the Blind (Westdeutsche Blindenhörbücherei /WBH) in Münster. It is the biggest of its kind in the German-speaking world.

It all began in a cellar of the Münster public library: in 1955, at the request of the then library director Hans Thiekötter, actors from the municipal theatre recorded the first audio books for the blind and visually impaired in an improvised studio lined with egg cartons. Because in the 1950s trams still rattled past the library, the productions took place in the quiet night hours.

“In those days we sent the recordings in the form of tape reels, which then had to be laboriously threaded”, recalls the present director of the West German Audio Book Library for the Blind, Werner Kahle. Because tape recorders were dear, people founded listening clubs: “There used to be one tape recorder in a village and people would gather in someone’s sitting room. In some places up to twenty people, visually impaired, blind and people with normal sight, would gather there”.

It has been a long time now since tapes were sent. Instead, the WBH supplies its 8,500 users with CDs and audio cassettes, which are much more compact than books in Braille. Every month 20, 000 recordings are sent to the blind post-free. Listeners can choose from a catalogue of approximately 24,500 titles.

Special copyright for the blind

: Magazine of the West German Audio Library for the Blind; © Westdeutsche BlindenhörbüchereiIn order to loan audio books from the WBH, a person needs a medical certificate verifying a visual impairment. Only then do the special copyright regulations apply, which are the foundation of all audio book libraries for the blind in Germany.

“We are permitted to record any book that is published in Germany”, explains Werner Kahle. 350 titles per year are recorded by thirty freelance reciters in the library’s own studio, which are then processed digitally. Depending on the length of the book, a production costs between 250 and 2,000 euros. In order to avoid doubling, the selection of books takes place in accord with the other audio book libraries for the blind. Altogether, 1,200 new audio books for the blind appear annually. “The great goal, which all audio book libraries have in common, is to produce more”, says Kahle. At present, he says, there are far too few audio books by comparison with the 80,000 to 100,000 new print books, as traditional books for people with normal sight are called.

Particularly in demand are bestsellers that promise several hours of light-hearted entertainment: authors such as Rosamunde Pilcher, Ken Follett, Barbara Wood and Heinz Günther Konsalik are right at the top of the wish list. But Uwe Tellkamp’s novel Der Turm, recommended by the WBH, has also been reserved about a hundred times. Non-fiction such as the classic medical manual Mensch, Körper, Krankheit is likewise amongst the lending library’s evergreens.

“The anchor in social life”

Werner Kahle; © private“For many blind people, audio books are their last anchor in social life”, says Kahle. This connection to the “world outside” is made possible by journals and newspapers such as Die Zeit, which the WBH produces daily in the form of an audio book. Unlike other titles, newspaper subscriptions are subject to charge. With these fees and other products distributed by the WBH, it generates approximately ten per cent of its required yearly budget of about one million euros. Forty per cent is contributed by public subsidies. But the users themselves provide the lion’s share of fifty per cent through donations.

“We immediately felt the present world economic crisis in the decline of donations. We tremble for the salaries of our eleven full-time and six part-time staff”, frets Kahle. He would dearly like to swap the WBH’s status as a non-profit association for the self-help of the blind for full financing from the public hand.

Cassettes make way for DAISY

DAISY-CD; © Westdeutsche BlindenhörbüchereiAn important change awaits all German audio book libraries for the blind at the end of 2009: they will then no longer lend audio cassettes, but only DAISY-MP3-CDs, which have already been in circulation for a few years. DAISY, or “Digital Accessible Information System”, designates a standard that goes far beyond the traditional audio book. Not only do more than thirty-five hours fit on such a CD, but the user can also place bookmarks in it and regulate the speed of the recitation without making the CD sound stripped out. DAISY makes aurally accessible tables of contents and other additional information that can otherwise only be printed out. It also makes possible a precise navigation through the text by page and line. DAISY is thus a full-fledged substitute for print medium.

No more waiting

For the Westphalian audio book library for the blind and its users DAISY has a further advantage: with it, the library can burn personal copies for individual users. In accordance with copyright law, these copies must then be shredded upon return. Before, in the days of cassettes, it was quite different: “We had only five copies of a book like one of Rosamunde Pilcher’s, but 500 orders”, explains Kahle. “It sometimes took a year before the listener got his copy. Some unfortunately died in the meantime”.

To use DAISY-CDs functions, the listener needs a special playback machine that costs about 370 euros. “That is a considerable cost for our listeners”, says Kahle. Together with manufacturers, the WBH is therefore seeking to find solutions such as leasing.

Perhaps people will again form listening clubs in Germany, as in the early days of the West German Audio Library for the Blind. Kahle thinks this might be an option in old people’s and nursing homes – “if the listeners are still more or less mobile and not bedridden. I fear, however, that a set of mind that allows several people to sit and listen together is no longer the order of the day”.

Sabine Tenta
The author is a freelance journalist for, among others, the Westdeutsches Rundfunk in Cologne.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
August 2009

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