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SIS Alumna’s Quest to Make Reading Accessible

Sochor‘That All May Read’ – Maria Sochor’s Quest to Make Reading Accessible to the Disabled
SIS newsletter excerpt submitted by Hillary Tune

Imagine wanting to read a great classic, but being unable to see the words. Or knowing that your favorite author released a new book, but your hands shake too much due to a medical condition, and you can’t hold a book still enough to consume it. Or consider a quadraplegic, who hopes to read the next book in their favorite series, but is unable to turn the pages.

Well, there’s a library for that: The Tennessee Library for Accessible Books and Media. Its mission statement is, “That all may read.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, and all-encompassing. It’s not just about literacy, but rather ensuring that those who have physical limitations to reading can still access books and media. The woman currently driving the library to find new ways to serve and reach even more of this population is Maria Sochor (MS/IS ’08), an alumna of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville School of Information Sciences.

Serving a Unique Population

As director of this special library, Sochor oversees distribution of materials to about 5,000 patrons – an amount that she says is just a sliver of the population she would like the library to serve. It’s a unique group that requires out-of-the-box methods for both delivery and consumption of materials.

“The automation system, and the way we circulate books here, is sideways from how a public library does it,” Sochor explained. “The idea of people waiting in line for something doesn’t necessarily exist here – if every patron wanted to read the same book at the same time, I can do that.”

This is because the library has copyright exceptions to distribute books in formats such as braille and audio. They use a reproducible cartridge that is basically a 16-GB USB drive with housing around it that makes it easier to manipulate, to the point where it can be put into a player with just one finger. They even have a breath switch that can be sent out to patrons so those who can’t use limbs to control a player can use their mouths to turn it on and off. Materials are distributed to patrons via the mail – which is one of the biggest changes for Sochor, as she was used to working in the bustling Brentwood Library, which served upwards of 1,000 patrons a day.

“Last year, we had about 40 patrons walk in here,” she said. “So finding how to connect and be aware of what patrons need without actually being around them was a challenge. Everything being mailed out creates opportunities for operation and workflow design that wouldn’t make sense in a public library. I know at 7 o’clock in the morning every book for every patron that we’re going to send out that day, so I can batch all of that and have people working in sections.”

Patrons of the library need to be eligible to qualify for its services – the process is required to be completed within three business days, but Sochor’s team strives to enter them into the system within 24 hours. This, she said, is because many of the patrons are older or in poor health.

“Being able to possibly provide some sort of comfort to people is a real honor, and that’s something we take seriously here,” Sochor said.

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