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Originally published August 28, 2011 at 7:00 PM | Page modified August 29, 2011 at 11:06 AM

Lit Life

Talking Book and Braille Library in Seattle is a volunteer wonder

The Washington Talking Book and Braille Library serves more than 10,000 state residents and runs on the best efforts of 400 volunteers, providing recorded and Braille books for anyone with a disability that prevents them from reading books in a traditional format.

Seattle Times book editor

The Washington Talking Book and Braille Library

2021 Ninth Ave., Seattle. Info: 206-615-0400, 800-542-0866; (TTY) 206-615-0418 or wtbbl.org. Email: wtbbl@sos.wa.gov.
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If you had to guess, what would you say are some of Seattle's most popular volunteer positions? Post-earthquake rescue? Chopping vegetables with a star chef for a benefit auction? Counseling clueless travelers at the airport?

All interesting work, but there's another highly sought-after (and competitive) volunteer pursuit — recording books for the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library.

Last week I was introduced to the library, one of Seattle's most enduring institutions. Housed in an appealing old Streamline Moderne building, a former Dodge dealership at Ninth and Lenora in Seattle, this library loans books to visually, physically or otherwise impaired readers, and has been providing its services since 1906.

Today it fills its mission largely through volunteer help:

• The library, which prepares both recorded books and Braille books, has a 1:20 paid staff-to-volunteer ratio; 19 paid staffers, 400 volunteers.

• Reading a book out loud to record it might sound like simple stuff, but questionnaires, auditions and a committee review are involved. The library takes just 1 out of 4 applicants. The rest are generally offered other positions at the library, including translating books into Braille (training is provided).

• Thanks to a 1931 law passed to benefit disabled veterans of World War I, this service has been, and remains, free. About 10,000 people in the state subscribe to its services, though program manager Danielle Miller believes more could benefit — recent census data indicates that 190,000 state residents could be eligible. Any state resident who is "legally blind, deaf-blind, visually impaired (cannot easily read conventional-size print), physically disabled (cannot comfortably hold books or turn pages), or learning disabled due to organic dysfunction" can qualify.

About 350 patrons are under 18. Fifty-one are centenarians. The library delivers 2,000 books a day, in Braille, digital or cassette form, specially formatted so a blind or otherwise impaired person can use them.

This local library is part of a nationwide network of about 60 similar libraries nationwide. The National Library Service provides about 2,000 books a year to the network, but the national service can't cater to local tastes. So Washington's library keeps its finger on the collective pulse of client requests, which turn out to be ... pretty local.

Last week, I saw two books by local authors on deck to be recorded: "West of Here," the sprawling Olympic Peninsula-set novel by Bainbridge Island writer Jonathan Evison, and "Puget Sound Through an Artist's Eye" by renowned Seattle wildlife artist and sculptor Tony Angell. The Angell book, while part text, is largely composed of images of Angell's paintings, prints and sculptures. Audio productions supervisor Theresa Connolly has an art-history degree and will write a script for illustrations if she deems them essential to the book. Other popular local writers include the perennial mystery favorites J.A. Jance, Mary Daheim and former Seattle beat cop Lowen Clausen.

Rick Sipe, a retired Boeing manager, has been reading and narrating books for the library for about two years. Sipe, who learned of the library when his mother was diagnosed with macular degeneration, can record a book in about 18 to 20 sessions, 25-30 pages at a time. He loves the work: "I think sometimes as a volunteer, there's a tendency on the part of supervision or management to dumb it down. We're expected to do our work and do it well."

Other library services include children's programming and the Evergreen Radio Service, through which people read aloud several publications a day. Volunteers also work call centers to help clients with their requests.

When Miller started her job in 2008, the library's two-year budget was about $3.5 million a year; now it's $2.8 million. The library had to stop buying large-print books, though it has received some donations in that format.

Still, it sustains its mission. Sue Ammeter, 62, a former Seattle resident who now lives in Port Hadlock, checked her first Braille book out of the library more than 50 years ago. She says the library is a godsend for its patrons, who "can't just walk down to the 7-11 and get a pocket book or a newspaper. Books are their lifeline."

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Follow her on Twitter at @gwinnma.

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