The History of the Braille Institute Library

Original concept drawing of Braille Institute, looking like a fifties Las Vegas casino.

The Beginnings


Robert Atkinson started the Universal Braille Press, later to become Braille Institute, in the converted garage of his house in Los Angeles.


The first King James Version of the Bible printed in revised Braille (21 volumes) by the Universal Braille Press. This project was the forerunner of the Library’s book collection.


Sixteen U.S. libraries supported by the Library of Congress authorized to distribute Braille books.


After the Pratt-Smoot Act was signed into law, as of March 3rd, funding established through the Library of Congress for raised-print literature for blind people. Atkinson is credited with initiating the lobbying of the bill.

Braille Institute rented space on Vermont Avenue close to Melrose Avenue for its library of 250 titles that comprised 1,250 volumes.


The Library moved to 741 North Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90029.

The Early Years


 The Library of Congress designated Braille Institute of America the Southern California Regional Library and Machine Lending Agency for the Blind.

Library services extended not only to the 10 southern counties for California, but also to the State of Arizona.


Braille Institute leased space at 656 North Vermont Avenue to accommodate the expanding Library.

Braille Institute published the first braille Merriam-Webster Student Dictionary, comprising 32 volumes.


Librarian Eleanor Syminton appointed the regional library’s first administrator.


Property leased at 721 North Vermont Avenue for Library expansion, and services extended to 1,522 patrons.


In its 25th anniversary year, Braille Institute purchased the leased Vermont Avenue property


The Braille Institute Library was expanded to occupy 6,500 square feet.



Congress passed PL 89-522, giving people with physical handicaps access to the talking-book service.

Russell W. Kirbey appointed Executive Director of Braille Institute.

Installed a 24-hour answering service for the convenience of Library patrons.


On the 50th Anniversary of Braille Institute, the construction of a new library building began. It was completed a year later.


With the exception of Braille readers, service to residents of Arizona was transferred to the new Arizona Regional Library in Phoenix.


The Orange County Regional Center opens in Anaheim at 527 North Dale Avenue.


The Library Advisory Committee formed with Gerard Rossi as the first elected chairperson. The committee comprised eight representatives of the patron population and four members of statewide organizations.


The National Library Service introduced books on four-track cassette.


The State Legislature passed SB1565, appropriating $166,000 to provide partial support for library services to blind, visually impaired, physically handicapped and reading-disabled residents of Southern California.


A PDP II computer installed and the Library operation automated, one of the first changeovers among network libraries.


Discontinued Thrift Shop activities at 100 South Western Avenue to provide annex space for supplementary Library storage.


The Library purchased its first voice-indexed cassette dictionary for the reference section of the collection that consisted of 400,000 units of Braille and talking books.


Braille Institute acquired 1.7 acres of land from Los Angeles City College on which to build new Library and conference facilities.


The new facility for the Desert Center opened in Rancho Mirage to meet the needs of people in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Years of Challenge


In January, Dr. Henry C. Chang was appointed Director of Library Services.

The Library began production of bibliographies series in large print.

In September, the new 100,000-square-foot Library and Conference Center facilities were dedicated.


Work Team Achievement award was established. The first winner was the Public Library Workshop Team.

A pilot plan was launched to establish the first of four branch libraries in the Desert Center at Rancho Mirage.


The Library was selected to be the test site for the new version of the NLSNET software by NLS.

The first expanded Summer Reading Program for children and young adults was completed.

Branch Libraries in Santa Barbara and Orange County Centers were added to the system.

Descriptive videos were added to the collection.


San Diego Center was dedicated and the fourth Branch Library started its operation.

Sub-Regional Library software was installed at the Sight Center for communicating with Branch Libraries.

Arizona Braille readers were transferred to the Utah Regional Library.


“Take a Talking Book” Public Education Campaign, funded by NLS to reach senior community in Southern California was successfully completed.


Leslie E. Stocker was appointed President of Braille Institute.

Annual library circulation figure hit ONE MILLION books for the first time.

The Library’s Machine Quality Program was ranked number one in the nation according to the NLS findings of the National Machine Repair Quality Study.


The Copyright Law Amendment, known as the Chafee Amendment, was signed into law by President Clinton on September 16th as Public Law 104-197 of the United States Code. The new law exempts nonprofit organizations that produce specialized formats of books and magazines for the blind from requesting permission from the copyright holder.

NLS joined the Library in honoring the Telephone Pioneers of Southern California for its contributions to the national talking-book program. Over the past two decades more than 100,000 machines had been repaired.

Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan presented the Library with a Certificate of Commendation: 

“In recognition of your outstanding service in providing books, magazines and other Braille and recorded materials for loan to blind, visually impaired, physically handicapped and reading disabled library patrons. October 23rd , 1999”

Internet access acquired and Web browsers and e-mail utilized to conduct the daily operations of the Library.

Frank Kurt Cylke, NLS Director, was keynote speaker at the Library’s Annual Open House, with a recordbreaking crowd of nearly 800 patrons and visitors in attendance.


Entry to on-line information sources became available via the Internet, allowing staff’s access to the Library of Congress. Branch Libraries were connected to the Main Library using TELNET protocol on the Internet.

Pioneer Verdugo Life Members presented 14,000th repaired cassette machine to the library.


The first Braille Institute Web site was established.

The Library workshop “Living with Limited Vision” drew a record 150 Activity Directors from healthcare facilities throughout Southern California.


On March 25th, the San Diego Branch Library relocated to the new 28,000- square-foot Regional Center in La Jolla.

National Library Week celebration featured two-time Grammy-winning artist, composer and Library patron Diane Schuur.

The Library conducted a comprehensive user survey. Findings showed that user satisfaction rate reached 99 percent. The first survey of Spanish-speaking patrons solicited information pertinent to the collection.

Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan was keynote speaker at the Library Open House. Headlining the program were Comedian Don Knotts and Actor/Narrator Joe Campanella.

The Library produced the 832-page Spanish catalog in English and Spanish and distributed it throughout the NLS network libraries.

Years of New Technology


For the first time in Network Library history, the National Conference of Librarians Serving the Blind and Physically Handicapped was held in Southern California.

The Braille Institute Library awarded a grant by the California State Library to implement a Telephone Reader Program, providing news and advertisements for local grocery stores, drugstores, department stores and discount stores free of charge through any touchtone telephone.

The first Golden Cassette Award in recognition of outstanding service and dedication presented to longterm Library volunteer Sister Ruth Kent.


The Library Web Site,, was established.

On May 23rd, the Telephone Reader Program launched, marked by a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by the Braille Institute Board of Directors.

Annual Open House attended by special guest speaker First Lady of California Sharon Davis, who was named Honorary Chair of the Braille Institute Library Talking Book-of-the-Month Club.

A record-breaking monthly book circulation of 121,155 achieved in October.


The Library of California Board approved our full membership affiliation with Arroyo Seco Library Network, part of the Library of California, formed by passage of state legislation to facilitate resource sharing among libraries throughout California.


Began the Kids’ Book Club at Frances Blend Elementary School in Los Angeles.

The Library IT function was consolidated with the Braille Institute IT Department. As a result, two IT Library staff members were transferred.


The Library launched a new project of a monthly listing of new library books to patrons with e-mail addresses. Initially, 550 patrons receive the book list via e-mail.

On May 11th, the Santa Barbara Branch Library relocated to the new Regional Center that replaces an older building on the same site.

Library Patron Marion Higgins was honored at our 70th anniversary celebration of the Library Open House as the oldest person in California, 15th oldest in the nation and 35th oldest in the world.

The Keystone System (KLAS) conversion was completed in November 2004 which replaced the old DRA system.


In June 2005, the Braille Institute Library Services, represented by the Director, received the first “Network Library of the Year” award from NLS at a special ceremony in Washington, D.C. at the Library of Congress Jefferson Building, in recognition of the Library’s excellence, mission support, patron satisfaction, creativity and innovation.

Library Director Henry C. Chang was appointed to the Advisory Committee to complete the 2005 edition of the Revised Standards and Guidelines of Services for the Library of Congress Network of Libraries for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, published by ALA.

A Spanish language feature of the Telephone Reader Program began in May 2005.


The Library Open House was held on October 19th with guest speakers State Librarian Susan Hildreth, California State Senator Sheila James Kuehl, and Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti. Senator Kuehl presented the library with a Certificate of Recognition in honor of:

“Your outstanding and unwavering service to the blind, visually impaired and physically handicapped community. Your efforts are a testament to your dedication and perseverance, and have set an example for all to follow. The State of California commends you for being an inspiration to the people of the 23rd State Senate District. October 19th , 2006”

A new service called Kids’ Korner was unveiled at the Library Open House on October 19th, 2006. Story-telling sessions are held every month for blind and visually impaired kids from local schools in the area.

A new Digital Conversion Library Committee was established to guide planning for the digital talking book transition and to prepare the staff for the conversion in 2008.

An On-Line Public Access Catalog (Web-OPAC) was launched to allow library patrons Internet access to search for books in the Library’s collection and order books to their Library account.


The Library received a grant from the California State Library to subscribe to a new service called Unabridged whereby patrons are provided Internet access to digital audio books.

The Library won the ASCLA/KLAS/National Organization on Disability 2007 award in recognition of the Braille Institute’s significant accomplishments in service people with disabilities, particularly the Southern California Telephone Reader Program which offers telephone access to a human voice reading newspapers, advertisements and other library information. The national award is being presented at the annual American Library Association conference in Washington D.C. in June.


The Telephone Reader Program added Old Time Radio Shows to the options on the system. This new feature became popular very quickly and has over 3,000 episodes.

On March 28th, actress Shelley Long came to the Library to record articles for the Telephone Reader Program’s Guest Voice Series.

NLS Network Division Chief Dr. Carolyn Sung, author Michael Patrick MacDonald and actress Mariette Hartley participated in the 2008 Library Open House Program. The theme of the program was “A New Day – The Digital Way,” marking the early stages of the network library transition from analog to digital.


The Library hosted the 2009 annual KLAS Conference from April 21-23 at the Braille Institute’s San Diego Regional Center. Regional and subregional library representatives from 44 network libraries in the nation came to San Diego to participate in the annual program.

The Library was selected as one of eight libraries in the NLS Network to participate in the Digital Prelaunch Project. This project was launched to test the new digital players and get patron feedback. From May through July, 544 new Digital Talking Book Machines (DTBMs) were sent to a select number patrons and a sampler catalog of 54 digital titles were available for their book selections.

The 2009 Summer Reading Program featured a record-breaking number of young participants, with 274 signing up. Puddlejumpers authors Chris Carlson and Mark Jean attended the award celebration and gave a book reading.

The Telephone Reader Program added a new recording booth, bringing the total number of recording booths to five. All of the booths were updated to improve sound quality on the system. TRP also added restaurant menus to the system.

The Library received its first official shipment of Digital Talking Book Machines in August.


Braille Institute Library Services was one of five library recipients of the 2009 IMLS National Medal, the highest honor in the nation for libraries and museums. The National Medal is awarded to only five libraries and five museums each year. On February 23rd, Library Director Dr. Henry C. Chang traveled to Washington, D.C. for the IMLS National Medal Award Ceremony.

Braille Institute Library Services is indeed honored to receive this national award and recognition from IMLS,” said Dr. Henry C. Chang, Library Director. “This award comes on the heels of us celebrating our 75th anniversary as a designated Regional Library of the National Library Service/Library of Congress. Our library has never wavered in our mission to serve the needs of our readers as well as to foster independence in our blind and visually impaired patrons in Southern California. This National Medal recognizes my staff, the Library Advisory Committee members and our dedicated volunteers who will continue to provide quality library services daily to the community through numerous outreach programs geared to reach patrons of all ages.”

The Library was one of four libraries selected in the NLS Network to participate in the pilot program of the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD). BARD officially went live at the Library on January 20th and now has over 1,100 BARD subscribers.

The Summer Reading Program had a recognition party on July 16th for 124 participants. Special guest author Alva Sachs read two books to the young crowd. The theme of the program was “Be a Star at You Library” and the kids were treated to photos on their own “red carpet.”

On October 22nd, the Library held its annual Open House Program. NLS Director Frank Kurt Cylke was in attendance for the first time since 1996. The Library unveiled the new Frank Kurt Cylke Digital Platinum Award that was named in his honor and presented the first awards to recipients Karen Arcos-Moreno and Vern, Jim and Jarod Laub. Other special guests included award-winning actress Joan van Ark, motivational speaker and Library patron Nancy Solari, 8-year old pianist Emily Bear and Emmy-winning comedian and TRP volunteer Ed Driscoll.

View/Download Historical Highlights in PDF.