Case study

Library services for blind and visually impaired people

Portsmouth library reducing health inequalities and helping reduce social isolation.

Large print books

Large print books. Photo credit: Portsmouth libraries

Contribution to corporate priorities

Library services for blind and visually impaired people support public health outcomes by:

  • maintaining maximum independence and dignity in old age
  • reducing health inequalities, particularly addressing social isolation of older people
  • improving mental health and wellbeing.

They also support local authority priorities by:

  • transforming people’s life chances, putting those with poorest life chances first
  • reducing need and demand for services by enabling and encouraging independence

Description of the work

Portsmouth Library and Archives have been providing additional services to people with vision impairment for over fourteen years. These services have gone well above and beyond the provision of large print and audio books and have been recognised nationally, receiving the Libraries Change Lives Award in 2003 and another nomination in 2015. The aim is to provide a needs based service to increase the independence and wellbeing of adults who are blind or vision impaired. The work is led by their Vision Impairment Services Officer (who is blind), supported by library staff and volunteers. Most of the users of this service are over 16 years of age. The local authority does provide support in schools for children so most of the library work has been with adults.

Pen Friend labelling on audio books

Beyond the provision of books in alternative formats, they use Pen Friend labelling on their audiobooks which gives people more independence so borrowers can listen to descriptions without assistance. They have a special “Access” membership category which allows free reservations of in-stock items to adults with disabilities and free inter-library loans of large print and audio books (reservations are free for all children in the city). They provide a full set of titles in the Access2Books range (72 point font children’s picture books with braille) and have subscriptions for Clearvision Books and Talking Newspapers.

Reading groups for the visually impaired

Two reading groups are also supported for the visually impaired, using material on MP3 files and Audio CDs. Over the years, a number of free open source assistive software packages have emerged. Working in partnership with Jis TechDis, Portsmouth were able to put together a suite of some of the key open source assistive software in one place on all People’s Network computers and continue to provide training in this software so people can download them at home and use them independently.

Library staff were also trained to use the shortcut keys and better assist visually impaired customers on the People’s Network. There is a weekly information and support group, which features guest speakers. This group is often consulted by the local authority and external agencies when they need to take the needs of visually impaired adults into account in the planning and delivery of services. Staff also work with Action For Blind People on their “Finding Your Feet” courses for newly diagnosed people, empowering them to live more independent lives. In turn, those newly diagnosed people also refer people they know to the library service.

Living aids for loan or purchase

In 2012, following the closure of the Vanguard Centre for Independence that was provided by Adult Social Care, the sensory shop service was moved to the central library which now provides equipment for loan or purchase and training to use everyday living aids. The Vision Impairment officer also offers braille translation and instruction and some additional income is generated by undertaking braille translation for other authorities and external agencies. A quarterly newsletter - Eye2Eye - which contains useful and entertaining items is produced in braille, large print, CD and electronic format.

Telephone service

A telephone advice service for the visually impaired is also available, which is attracting an increasing number of enquiries from people each year. These range from referrals from other agencies to requests for emotional support (although not part of her role, the Vision Impairment officer is a qualified counsellor) and practical help and guidance. Where libraries cannot directly help, people are signposted to other local groups and projects that can provide additional support.

From set up in 2001-2005, two part-time posts for the telephone helpline were funded by Learning Links with some additional support from the Adult Social Care department of Portsmouth City Council. Since then, however, the work has been solely funded from the Library and Archive Service budget. There is a small amount of income generation from braille translation, the sale of products for people with sensory impairment and consultation work.

Outcomes achieved

The programme is currently being evaluated. This page will be updated when the evaluation is available.

Lessons learnt

There are obvious benefits to footfall in the libraries when larger reading groups and ICT classes meet at central library as well as the Thursday morning information support group at Southsea library. In 2014, just under a 1000 people attended these library-based groups and 364 people made appointments to see the Vision Impairment officer in person for advice or support. The advice line attracts a large number of enquiries. In 2014 there were over 1300 enquiries, an increase of 5% on the previous year.

There are practical benefits for the library staff who develop greater disability awareness because interaction with disabled colleagues and service users takes place on a regular basis. Last year (in partnership with Guide Dogs for the Blind), some sighted guiding training was delivered for library staff to provide additional support for them in their day-to-day work. Feedback from visually impaired service users on our digital services is also useful for local authority ICT colleagues and also the suppliers of our systems.

Future Plans

Portsmouth Library and Archive Services are one of four culture partners in the south-east that are taking part in a Heritage Lottery funded Royal National Institute of Blind People Culture Link project. £24,000 has been allocated to Portsmouth libraries to make the Conan Doyle Collection more accessible to visually impaired people. Already, staff and volunteers have been trained in audio describing collections and will be able to develop interactive information panels with Discovery pens and specifically made handling objects that will be easily packed away and toured.

Additional resources

CILIP libraries change lives award

Blog post on the programme

Contact for further information:

Published 16 December 2015