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For 80 years, the Braille Circulating Library has reached out to blind and visually impaired readers across the country.

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"It's the oldest Braille library of its kind in existence," says Barton, executive director of the Christian-based circulator. It's about to get an internal makeover.

Soon, the small nonprofit, nondenominational library that disseminates Christian literature free throughout the world will acquire four computers, the latest software and a Braille transcriber — at a cost of about $18,000 — thanks to donations from individuals and at least four local foundations. The acquisitions are a windfall, Barton says, and an answer to prayer.

"Even I don't get it; it really is God at work," he muses. "He's kept it going 80 years, and there's no human explanation as to how."

Its quaint and quiet history holds signs.

The idea for the circulator began in the early 1920s as an effort by Richmonder Louise McCraw to have Christian sermons and texts translated into Braille for the blind. She started the library in her home. In time, it became a mission project for Immanuel Baptist Church and occupied part of the church's former Pine Street location in Oregon Hill. The library's board of directors purchased its current site in 1974 — at the corner of Mulberry Street and Stuart Avenue in the Fan.

The Braille Circulating Library is housed in a three-story brick building that appears unnoticed, a relic tucked amid museums and historic landmarks. A small sign on the building bears its name. Occasionally a volunteer enters or exits. There's no foot traffic. "We don't have people coming in and looking through the shelves like a public library," Burton says. Instead, its patrons come from far and near, and they come by phone.

What they can't see — shelves and shelves of red- and green-bound books — they can touch one at a time. When patrons want a particular book, they call to ask if the library has it and whether it's available. If the answer's yes, a volunteer fills out a card in the patron's name, by hand, and mails the book to the reader who can keep it for up to eight weeks. Volunteers mail out 30 to 40 books a week. There is no membership, no fee, no postage to be paid.

In addition to books in Braille, the library carries large-print books and audio cassettes of series such as the popular devotional "Our Daily Bread."

But like the Braille books themselves, what's remarkable is the antiquated way in which those devotional words get lifted and passed along. Every month, a volunteer reads and records the daily readings in a tiny studio not much larger than a phone booth. About 150 tapes of "Our Daily Bread" are made and then mailed to listeners across the country.

Before the rise in popularity and availability of books on tape, all kinds of books were read aloud and recorded for the blind and visually impaired in this studio. Even now, Barton says, when a request comes in for a new title, and for a new book to be made, it takes time.

"I have a lady in Colorado who does Brailling for the library," he says, explaining the process. He cites a recent example of a patron who had requested a Braille copy of "Let's Roll," the story by Lisa Beamer of her husband Frank Beamer's attempt to overtake hijackers on the fated plane over Pennsylvania on 9/11. Barton called the publisher, requested to copy the book into Braille, then waited for permission to translate. Once permission was granted, his colleague in Colorado typed the book out on what's called a Braillon machine — with six keys denoting the six dots of the Braille cell — and then sent the book to Barton. Once at the circulator in Richmond, the text was sent through a thermoform machine, which generates "heat in a vacuum to form the dots," Barton says, thus creating a one-page-sided Braille book.

The process is tedious and slow, he confesses, but appreciated. Today the library boasts more than 800 Braille titles, 3,500 volumes and 3,340 registered readers. It serves more than 1,000 regular readers in 25 countries and all 50 states.

"They certainly fill a need that we don't," says Barbara N. McCarthy, director of the Library Resource Center for the Virginia Rehabilitation Center for the Blind. McCarthy helps oversee the statewide center that functions as part of the Library of Congress and serves more than 9,000 visually handicapped throughout Virginia. "They're virtually overlooked, but they somehow very quietly keep on doing what they do."

Barton's in the process of sorting through book titles to determine which are unreadable because the dots have worn down, he says, before assembling a new working catalog. A former high-school principal and the long-running "chapel leader" for the Richmond Braves, Barton says he feels a special calling to the Braille circulator.

He's making connections, he says. When the Florida patron received the book, "His Joy," he'd requested by mail, he called Barton to thank him. He asked to read some of it aloud. For a while Barton listened, though tired from a long day's work. Before he knew it, the man had finished the whole story. "I'm probably the only guy in the world," Barton says, "that's had a blind guy read him an entire book over the phone." S



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