From Blueberries to Braille

By: Kelly Sterns, Director, Walking Books Library (Independent)

A day of Walking Books Library (WBL) outreach in this rural area can include noshing wild blueberries from a roadside bush, avoiding barking dogs or charging roosters as well as dropping off and picking up books. We service people in a variety of homes including trailers, tents, farmhouses, cabins, cars and apartments. We provide books to borrow for a month, free books to keep and other materials when possible such as school supplies and sometimes even microscopes!

WBL was created to engage people who were not regularly using the traditional library system. Reasons differed ranging from time constraints, health, transportation, economic or housing. Some users needed materials that could not be found close by like LGBTQ+ books, the New York Times, etc.

There are always new people to meet. Often those who've seen their neighbor's book bounty walk out to say hello and see what's shaking when we're in the area. The project has been around in the hills and valleys of western Maine for a few years and on high gear for the past twelve months. So far, we only have had one zero-growth community where service has not spread beyond the original seeded household.

Recently, we designed some fun outreach with materials provided by Jane Goodall's Roots and Shoots, C & A Scientific and First Book who has been a big supporter. We used water as a theme since we are lucky to be surrounded by brooks, ponds, streams, lakes, a river and even a small waterfall. Besides the bilingual version of I Know the River Loves Me by Maya Gonzalez, we purchased DK Braille's It Can't Be True! which answers questions like "How much water is there?"

Previously, we purchased a copy of It Can’t Be True! for a sight-impaired child as well as an extra to lend generally. We were surprised by how the extra copy drew various populations to the same reading experience. Featuring large print and textured, embossed photos, they were a hit with everyone from elders to reluctant readers to people who find the tactile experience calming.

It Can't Be True Book Cover     How Big Can Spiders Grow Braille Book Page

Sighted kids and adults loved touching the books and were genuinely joyful as they ran their hands over the pages. We are a teeny, tiny outfit with a small budget, yet we went from trying one out to wanting this to be a regular part of what we offer.

Books like this might not only lessen the stigma for visually impaired people but also be a magnet for reluctant readers. Our first "extra" copy was hard to retrieve from the elder we'd lent it to because she was having so much fun.

Multi-population braille books would be useful anywhere but in a small area where some places are still not wheelchair accessible, it's a concrete way to bring disabilities to the forefront. Small things like our choice of books can help normalize differences.

The immediate tactile enjoyment people had and the way all ages were drawn to them made us explore other possibilities about books, language, culture and disability. We've researched price points on American Sign Language flashcards and posters. Next, we'll learn more about Deaf culture and consider possible books.

We're an independent library focused on not only providing books to underserved populations but seeking out requests and input from the community so that we can always be entering new areas. Our inroads and successes have encouraged larger, more traditional libraries and literacy programs to expand into areas or adopt books we've purchased. We've already had a conversation with another library about how well the multi-population braille books did and I think we may have another new convert to a title we enjoyed!