LEAPing through time: a history of serving patrons with disabilities and special needs at the Seattle Public Library

2016 marks the 125th anniversary of The Seattle Public Library. After it was adopted as a department of the city in 1890, the Library opened its first reading room in Pioneer Square on April 8, 1891. To honor this milestone, we will be posting a series of articles here about the Library’s history and life in the 1890s. We also encourage our patrons to share their favorite memories of SPL on social media using the hashtag #SPL125. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. 

Imagine your most recent library visit… all the treasures you found! Browsing… this book here, a CD there, a movie. And your holds have come in! A stack full of media you’ve been awaiting and you are glad the weekend is around the corner so you can devour it all.

Now imagine you can’t see… Or hear… Or can’t get to the library easily. What would your library experience be like then? Just as amazing because of the services provided by the Seattle Public Library (SPL) through the Library Equal Access Program (LEAP) and other accessible services that the library has provided over the years. 

The SPL has been serving our patrons with disabilities for well over 110 years. The Library began sending books in New York Point to any blind person in Washington State who requested them in 1904. As early as 1907, under contract with the Washington State Library, we made Braille resources available to blind patrons at the downtown Central Library. And by 1912, over 73 readers across the state could borrow from the Library’s collection of books embossed in American Braille, New York Point and Moon Type. It was so popular that, in 1919, the Library dedicated a half time assistant, Ms. Stephanie “Fanny” Howley, to this service.

An example of Moon Type Embossing (yes, Moon Type!) Source: Wikipedia article on Moon Type

On March 3, 1931, Congress passed and President Hoover signed the Pratt-Smoot Act, my favorite name for an act ever, which provided $100,000 to the Library of Congress to fund regional Libraries for the Blind. Seattle was one of those original libraries and made space and staff available in the Central library Circulation Department to house and distribute Braille material serving patrons in Washington, Alaska, and Montana. As technology evolved and talking books on phonograph records were introduced, patrons found these books not only accessible to blind individuals but also useful for people who were physically disabled so, in 1934, Congress modified the regional library services to include them. The phonograph records were replaced with books on cassette in 1960. My, how time flies and technology progresses!

Examining a phonograph record from an audiobook Source: Washington Talking Book and Braille Library history page http://www.wtbbl.org/History.aspx


Our braille and tape items were merged and shared with those of the King County Library in 1973 and were housed in a new, joint location. Then Congress designated State specific talking book and braille library services and in 1983 we relocated these resources to 9th and Lenora as the new site for the Washington Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, now called the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library. While these resources and responsibilities may have transferred to the Washington State library, our commitment stayed put.

Seeking equity in service, the Library received funding through two grants from the Library Services and Construction Act in the late 1980s. These grants formed the basis for our Library Equal Access Program, or LEAP as it is referred to, the primary service point for our patrons with disabilities. Shortly thereafter, in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed, creating specific federal mandates for public entities to meet the employment, facility access and service needs of people with disabilities and special needs. That is what we here in LEAP are happy to do! Our adaptive equipment and LEAP programs are here to support you in your enjoyment of everything our library has to offer. We also have huge selections of audiobooks on CD, large-type books, eBooks wherein you can adjust font size and contrast, and eAudiobooks. If you or anyone you know needs accommodations under the ADA, please fill out this form found here.

Patron using a braille display unit. Source: http://www.spl.org/AccessforAll

Most recently we were able to add even more excellent resources to our offerings: Access for AllAccessibility Kits and Assistive Software. We are one of the first library systems in the country to network ZoomText (a screen-enlarging software) and JAWS (Job Access With Speech, a screen-reading software) so they are available on our hundreds of public internet computers. We also created additional regional ADA computer stations at the Broadview, University, Columbia, and Southwest branch libraries with Image Readers and braille display units for our patrons who are low vision and blind.

Our technologies are so much different than anyone could have imagined 125 years ago and they will continue to grow in LEAPs (haha, see what I did there?) and bounds in our near future. We are excited to provide these tools so all our patrons can access our fabulous resources. Let us know how we can help you!

~ Meadow P.

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