Reading Groups, Libraries and Social Inclusion: Experiences of Blind and Partially Sighted People

By Eileen Hyder. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013. 112 pp. £60.00 (hardback). ISBN 978-1-4094-4798-6.

As manager of the Reader Services department of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission’s Talking Book Program, I was intrigued by the topic of Dr. Eileen Hyder’s book, Reading Groups, Libraries and Social Inclusion: Experiences of Blind and Partially Sighted People. The book proved to be a quick read and an interesting profile of the group members, with cogent commentary on the issues addressed.

Reading Groups, Libraries and Social Inclusion recounts Dr. Hyder’s ethnographic study of a single VIP (Visually Impaired Persons) reading group, the Newell Group. The book is organized into six chapters, with the first chapter giving some historical background on reading groups, Dr. Hyder’s rationale for her use of participatory research, and an overview of the book.

Chapter 2 introduces the reader to each member of the Newell Group and provides in-depth reading histories of each one. The use of different typefaces for each group member begins here, and is continued throughout. While this demonstrates Dr. Hyder’s commitment to creating a singular “voice” for each group member, the changing type is jarring to the reader, and sometimes distracts from the content. Nevertheless, the stories are fascinating, and the readers’ comparisons of reading print to Braille and audio provide useful insight into their ideas regarding the concept of reading. This is a hotly debated topic in both librarianship and education.

Chapter 3 describes the practical barriers to reading experienced by persons with blindness or visual impairments, and elaborates on the meaning and valuation of reading in different formats. The lack of free and open access to unabridged reading materials in alternative formats is not merely an inconvenience, but an enormous problem for persons who are unable to use standard print. The social exclusion that can result from these barriers is addressed in Chapter 4, along with libraries’ use of reading groups as a vehicle for promoting social inclusion.

Chapters 5 and 6 concentrate on how reading groups provide opportunities for lifelong learning and give some context for the Newell Group by describing similar groups in other countries. Finally, the book once again discusses the link between reading groups and social justice. The issue of whether VIP reading groups should exist as discrete entities or should be integrated with other reading groups is discussed at length.

While some of the accessibility problems described in this book are perhaps less pronounced in the United States than in England,[1] the book provides valuable insight into a number of important issues pertaining to reading for persons with visual impairments or blindness. The controversy over whether audiobook reading is passive, or an involved and active process (like reading print or Braille) is addressed by several of the group members, who agree that reading audio is reading, and involves active thought and intellectual work from the reader. Nonetheless, the group members also express an awareness of a stigma associated with audio reading—that it is widely regarded as passive or even lazy. The definition of disability as something imposed on top of impairment (a construct of society rather than a condition of the person affected) is interesting, but seems to be primarily a matter of semantics. Further, the idea that the provision of discrete reading groups for persons with blindness or visual disabilities by libraries imposes excludability on these persons is not especially well-supported by the text.

Overall, Reading Groups, Libraries and Social Inclusion is a worthy read for anyone with an interest in providing library services to persons with blindness or visual impairments. It is an excellent read for librarians working in Talking Book programs, and I plan to pass it on to the other librarians on my staff as a recommended read.

Stacey Hathaway-Bell, Manager, Reader Services, Texas State Library and Archives Commission Talking Book Program.

[1]Copyright law in the United States provides for any copyrighted work to be reproduced in accessible format for persons with blindness or visual impairment, without permission from the author or publisher.