February is Love Your Library month, and I’m celebrating in style: I’m in New Orleans with Mike and Whitney, and tomorrow morning I’m the guest storyteller at the Milton H. Latter Memorial Branch of the New Orleans Public Library.
I am, and have always been, a huge fan of books and libraries. I am among millions of American kids who remember looking forward to trips to the library for a new stack of books to bring home every week. Flo flushes with embarrassment when she recalls dropping me off at the library one evening before heading to the grocery store, coming home and putting those groceries away, then realizing she’d forgotten to pick me up. “There you were, waiting all that time at the library door with your pile of books!” She says. “I felt terrible!” No reason for Flo to feel bad — I was in seventh heaven! I was so busy flipping through the pages and anticipating which new book I’d start first, I didn’t even realize she was late.
When surgeons told me in 1986 that the eye surgeries hadn’t worked and I’d never see again, one of my first concerns was how I would survive without being able to read. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) came to my rescue.
The Library of Congress administers NLS, a talking-book and Braille program available for free to those of us whose low vision, blindness, or physical handicap makes reading regular print difficult. A few years ago Woman’s Day Magazine published an essay I wrote about the talking Book Program, and that essay is still available on the American library Association’s “I Love Libraries” web site.
NLS mails books and magazines in audio and in Braille directly to enrollees at no cost. These days some materials are also available online for download, which means I can keep up with my book club — I’m the only one in the group who can’t see, and thanks to the new digital NLS program I don’t have to wait long to read new releases anymore.
When I was at the Seeing Eye training with Whitney I met a woman who loves — and uses — the talking book program even more than I do. If you watched that short one-minute Seeing Eye promotional video I linked to in a previous post, you saw Karen Keninger — she’s the graduate who gets a little teary-eyed in the video. On our last night of training, Karen and I sat down together over a glass of wine to talk about books and writing. She was heading home to Iowa the next morning (Karen is director of the Iowa Department for the Blind) but then getting on a plane again with her new Seeing Eye dog Jimi the very next day. “I have a job interview in Washington, DC.,” she said to me in a hushed tone, explaining that she was being considered for the position of Director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
The folks at the Library of Congress obviously liked what they saw. Karen got the job. People who can read print may not think much of this position, but to those of us who rely on NLS, this appointment is absolutely huge. I was sworn to secrecy about this new appointment until Karen passed security clearance, and she emailed over the weekend to tell me it’s official.
Karen Keninger was born and raised in Vinton, Iowa, the third of seven children in a happy and lively farming family. She was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and was completely blind by the age of 20. She graduated from Drake University in 1973 with a B.A. in Journalism and went back to school and graduated in 1991 with a masters degree in English. She served as Rehabilitation Consultant with the Iowa Department for the Blind, Program Administrator for the Iowa Library for the Blind and Director of the Iowa Department for the Blind before accepting her new position. In addition to all of that, she raised six, count them, six children!
I could go on and on about Karen Keninger, but hey, this is my last night in New Orleans, and Mike, Whitney and I are heading out to meet friends for one last decadent meal, and we’ll toast to Karen then. What a comfort it is to know that my beloved National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped will be in such good hands.