Staff at the Iowa library for the blind honored for their creative efforts to expand services amid pandemic

For expanding services during the pandemic while many businesses and government agencies were closing their doors altogether, the Iowa Library for the Blind and Print Disabled was the Library of Congress' Library of the Year.

Shelby Fleig
Des Moines Register

Sandi Ryan, 69, is a lifelong reader. She reads mysteries, non-fiction biographies, political histories and, on the days she volunteers to proofread Braille translations at the Iowa Library for the Blind and Print Disabled, she reads a bit of everything.

Ryan, whose eyes were removed to treat a rare early childhood cancer called retinoblastoma, has been a patron of the library for nearly 60 years. When she was 10, her mom discovered the library’s services and they regularly ordered audiobooks, or talking books, which came on vinyl records they played in their Nevada, Iowa, home every weekend.

Ryan, who now lives in Ames, sometimes wishes she was 10 again because the library’s youth services have expanded so far beyond what she had access to as a kid. Today, its instructional materials center helps more than 100 Iowa students who are blind, have low-vision or a reading disability to access their schoolwork. It's also in the process of building a new area for children and young adults in its space in downtown Des Moines.

Even during the pandemic, the library has created new programming for all ages while maintaining its pre-pandemic service levels. Its staff of 14 and a network of about three dozen volunteers shifted online in the early days of the pandemic, so the library never missed a day of mail shipments, which is the main way it gets materials to patrons.

"I’ve never called the library and not been able to get service, even during the pandemic," Ryan said. "It's a really wonderful staff that works at our library. Not only have they made sure that patrons get books, but they’ve expanded into a lot of new programming over this past year. I’ve never heard anyone say they can’t figure out how to do something because we can’t be in person."

More:Des Moines Water Works fears drought, toxic algae will limit supplies as summer water demand explodes

The Youth library space, currently under construction at the Iowa Library for the Blind and Print Disabled in Des Moines, Monday, May 10, 2021.

2020-21 Regional Library of the Year honors

The library’s feat of expanding its outreach in a time when many public entities had to shrink or halt service to the public earned it a top honor: The National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled at the Library of Congress named the Iowa Library for the Blind and Print Disabled the 2020-2021 Regional Library of the Year. The Bayside Area and Special Services Library in Virginia Beach, Virginia, was named the Sub-Regional Library/Advisory and Outreach Center of the Year.

The awards come with a $1,000 prize and a commemorative plaque. Employees will be honored during a virtual ceremony and will later be invited to the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., according to a Tuesday news release.

"These libraries met the challenges of the past year with tenacity and creativity," said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in a statement. "When the world around them came to a stop, they kept moving forward, finding new ways to expand access and engage their readers and their communities."

Library Director Sarah Willeford stands for a photo at the Iowa Library for the Blind and Print Disabled in Des Moines, Monday, May 10, 2021.

Sarah Willeford, the director of the Iowa library, which has nearly 6,000 registered patrons and circulated about 412,000 items last year, said maintaining the continuity of its sprawling mail system has required special coordination amid a global pandemic.

More:Former 'Market to Market' host settles with Iowa PBS in wage, sex discrimination case

With about a week’s notice that they would have to work remotely starting last March, the library, housed at the Iowa Department for the Blind, worked out a schedule in which three workers would come into the library each morning to meet the mail truck and send out new deliveries. The vast majority of the library’s books are circulated via the U.S. Postal Service, she said.

“We figured out a rotation that we could safely do and continue, so we actually didn’t miss a day of getting books in and out to our patrons,” Willeford said.

Library offers different programs and services for Iowans

One of the most successful new programs is called "IDB Reads," in which volunteer narrators, who normally record audiobooks that get delivered to patrons, are reading books live over the phone and then hosting a group discussion.

Volunteers are currently reading "cozy mysteries," a genre of gentler crime tales, and Westerns over the phone to two small groups of older patrons. Due to its popularity, the program will continue even once the library is fully reopened, Willeford said.

More:

Both Willeford and Ryan emphasized that the library's growing services are free to any qualified Iowan, which includes people who are blind, or people who have a visual, physical or reading disability that prevents the use of standard printed materials.

Those who are not eligible for the library's services but want to get involved can become a volunteer, donate money or help fundraise with a group called Friends of the Iowa Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

Ryan said the library is also an important resource for older Iowans who are losing their vision with age and fear losing the ability to access their entertainment and educational outlets.

"I would want no one to feel that one of the things they would lose, if they were losing their vision, is the ability to read," Ryan said. "Reading is so important. And, like I said, I read a lot, so it's important to me that everybody knows that this service is available."

More:

Shelby Fleig covers Des Moines city government for the Register. Reach her at shelbyfleig@dmreg.com or 515-214-8933.