Pittsburgh Teens Record Thousands Of Audiobooks For The Blind And Visually Impaired

May 14, 2018

It’s a Friday afternoon and a group of high school students crowd around a computer screen, watching audio levels rise and fall. Behind the window of a recording booth, another student is reading from a children’s book. But the teens aren’t reading directly to a child. They’re creating audiobooks, so blind and visually impaired children can access literature.

The students, who attend Barack Obama Academy of International Studies, describe themselves as “avid readers” and said they participating in the program to give back to their community. They gather nearly every week at the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (LBPH) to create recordings for children around the country.

Sam Bisno, a sophomore at Obama, said he joined the program to increase access to literature for a population that hasn’t had the resources. “As someone who growing up read all the time, the idea of not being able to do that easily...seemed just horrible to me,” Bisno said. “This seemed like a really great way to provide the means to read for those who can’t do it as easily.”

According to a 2015 report from the American Foundation for the Blind, 298,382 Pennsylvanians are visually impaired, and 2,754 are under the age of five. The LBPH provides both audio books, braille print books and large print books to visually impaired Pennsylvanians, including patrons who are blind, or have a print disability.

Mark Sachon, the library’s volunteer coordinator and studio manager, says a print disability is not being able to read standard sized font, which includes 14-point and lower. 

Aubree Peterson-Spanard, an Obama student who is visually impaired herself, uses the LBPH’s services in addition to volunteering her time to record audiobooks.

“It’s really, really fun,” Peterson-Spanard said. “I love being able to help my community.”

While the LBPH falls under the umbrella of the greater Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, they are also a part of the Library of Congress’ 80-year-old National Library Service (NLS) program. Volunteers and staff  at the LBPH use their two in house recording booths to create Pennsylvania-specific audio books, either about Pennsylvania or by Pennsylvania authors, to contribute to the NLS.

The program for high school students began ten years ago, when LBPH partnered with the Ellis School in Shadyside. Through Melissa Dodge, then an English and French teacher and diversity coordinator at the school, a remote recording studio was set up at Ellis so that students could learn to record, monitor, and edit audio books.

“These programs are true partnerships, which means that not only are the students serving us by narrating books, and they also help as monitors and editors,” Dodge said. “We are giving them a forum for experiential learning and service learning.”

The program at Ellis ran for eight years, and following Dodge’s retirement, moved back to the LBPH. For the past two years, the library has partnered with the Obama Academy, and has regular student volunteers that work on recordings weekly. The books the students record are also Pennsylvania-specific, and are usually children’s books or in the young adult genre.

Now a volunteer at the library, Dodge helps the students produce the books, and said that the students learn “valuable skills” in recording the books, such as public speaking and community engagement.

“It helps these students develop empathy,” Dodge said. “They’re very proud of the work that they’re doing knowing that students younger than they will be listening to audio books that they record here.”

The program has also begun to incorporate a bilingual aspect to the program this year, recording books in Spanish and making them available along with the rest of their collection. Sophomore Daevan Mangalmurti, who has been with the program for the full two years, said he hopes the project will expand access to underserved communities.

“Being at the library has given me the opportunity to make sure everyone has access to real reading materials,” Mangalmurti said. “Growing up, that was something that was really important, and the thought of not having those for any reason is something I couldn’t have withstood.”

The LBPH sends out about 800,000 audio books per year, and account for one-third of the total circulation of physical materials within the Carnegie Library system.