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Hearing books by choice, not chance

Volunteers are needed to help the visually impaired select books they want to listen to.

By SHARON TUBBS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000


CLEARWATER -- Elsie Takash is visually impaired and unable to peruse the stacks of a public library for the latest steamy Danielle Steele novel she prefers.

So each week, she waits for a package from the Pinellas Talking Book Library in Clearwater. Inside are books on cassette tapes randomly chosen for her by a computer. The 88-year-old Takash can only hope that the computer has had a penchant for love stories.

The talking book library, which caters to visually impaired people countywide, wants to find a way for Takash and others to choose their own books. But there aren't enough volunteers to make that happen, said Barbara Lapointe, assistant librarian and volunteer coordinator.

In 1998, the library started Book Buddies, a program in which volunteers help people like Takash with their book selections. But it's not been as successful as it could be, Lapointe said. So far, the library has about 20 buddies, some of whom cater to more than one visually impaired person.

Still, 20 patrons, including Takash, are on the waiting list for a buddy. And some have been on the list for months. "Sometimes, they've just been waiting so long, they just forget," Lapointe said.

Takash will be thankful if she ever gets a book buddy. "I think that would be wonderful," she said. Right now, "I just let (the library) send me what they want. Sometimes I just close it up and send it right back."

The buddy program is one in a number of services at the talking book library, which was established in Pinellas County in 1993. The library serves about 3,500 Pinellas County residents who can't use conventional print, Lapointe said. The majority are seniors, she said.

The Book Buddies program works like this:

The library periodically sends talking book catalogs to book buddies. From their homes, the buddies call visually impaired patrons and read the book titles and descriptions to them by phone. The buddies order the book cassettes, which are sent to patrons' homes at no charge.

"It's a great service," Lapointe said. "But I just need more book buddies."

For those without a buddy, book titles are randomly chosen by computer and sent to patrons' homes. The computer can limit its selections to certain kinds of books, such as romance, Lapointe said.

Books on tape are more than passing recreation for Takash, who says surgery to remove cataracts 10 years ago further eroded her sight. Takash lives alone in her St. Petersburg home and has little else to do throughout her day. She can still see some things, such as oversized writing, and can watch TV when the screen is within three feet of her eyes.

Takash listens to about three books each week. Currently, she is intrigued by the story of a scandalous romance that rocks an Amish community. She didn't know the book title, but thinks the computer hit a winner this time.

"It's going to be good," Takash said.

For information about the Book Buddies program, call the Pinellas Talking Book Library at 441-9958 or go to the library's Web site at www.tblc.org/ptbl.

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