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Interview with new Braille and Talking Book Library Head, Mike Marlin

The California State Library’s Braille and Talking Book Library, a regional library for the Library of Congress’ National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, serves customers in the northern part of the state. As of October 1, 2007, the Braille and Talking Book Library (BTBL) welcomed a new manager, Mike Marlin. Marlin works closely with BTBL customers, and the community agencies serving those customers, to develop the California State Library’s services for those who are unable to read standard print library materials. 

Mike Marlin leads the California State Library Braille and Talking Book Library.

CSL Connection: After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Brown University in 1987, you earned a Masters in Library and Information Science from the University of Washington in 1992. What prompted you to move into professional librarianship?

I’ve always used libraries. As a kid, I even hung out in them when my classmates were playing football or skateboarding. I was fortunate to grow up in Washington, D.C. which boasts a plethora of rich library collections. I conducted research for high school papers at Georgetown University Library, the National Archives, Library of Congress, and the Martin Luther King main branch of the D.C. Public Library. I felt at home surrounded by books.

After I left Brown University with a head full of deconstruction and meta-linguistics theory and a BA in Semiotics and Communications, I embarked on a community broadcasting career while most of my contemporaries pursued the art of subliminal advertising (and greenback accumulation) on Madison Avenue.

Landing in the competitive Seattle media market in 1990, I faced the prospect of working as an overnight radio board operator or finding another vocation. I remembered the encouragement of a head librarian I knew during a summer circulation assistant library job I had held years before and reflected on the umpteen enjoyable hours I spent cataloging and classifying recordings in FM radio libraries: the MLS was my natural next professional step.

CSL Connection: We know your ability to see is significantly impaired. Has it always been so?

I have always walked between sighted and unsighted worlds with differing degrees, as my blindness follows a path of gradual degeneration. When I began studying for my MLS, I could still read print even though Retinitis Pigmentosa, a hereditary form of blindness, had forced me to stop driving years before. Using an increasing array of accessibility aids, I was able to work in a series of fascinating library jobs including the Bastyr College of Naturopathic Medicine, the U.S. National Park Service and Environmental Protection Agency, and URS Consultants, an environmental engineering firm. I gravitated through visual aids such as hand-held magnifiers, lighted telescopes, jeweler’s glasses, closed captioned television monitors (CCTV), and screen magnifier software.

After my visual editing skills foundered while working on a music magazine I had co-founded, I embarked upon a new trajectory – learning Braille. I also investigated screen reading software and optical character recognition scanners. When I was no longer able to read print at all, the Washington State Vocational Rehabilitation office helped equip my job and home with more sophisticated accessible technology I needed to function efficiently.

CSL Connection:  You most recently worked as program coordinator and special needs librarian in Tucson’s Pima County Public Library where you developed literacy, environmental, music, and financial education programs for teens and adults. Can you tell us about a couple of these programs? Do you think they would work well at the California State Library?

At the Seattle Public Library I had organized low vision fairs and children’s programs and I brought similar educational and entertaining programs to Tucson residents. I put together a rock concert featuring Harry and the Potters (a wizard rock band that tested the ear canals of fellow library staffers) to draw middle and high school readers to the library, and I was a gun-totin’, cigar chompin’ librarian on the horse-drawn library wagon in the Tucson Rodeo Parade.

Because talking books events are near and dear to my heart, I know programs about audio books and the art of narration would inspire Braille and Talking Book library staff, customers, and the CSL in general. In Tucson, I arranged for Scott Brick, a well-known audio book narrator who has recorded over 300 books, to do a presentation for the community and it was a huge hit.

CSL Connection: We hear a lot about the “digital age” when it comes to libraries. What does “digital age” mean for the California State Library’s BTBL? How do you see BTBL using new technologies?

While BTBL customers use and appreciate blogs and wikis, their focus right now is on the future of digital books and the technology surrounding them. When the National Library Service implements its flash memory digital books and digital players in 2008 a new reality will set in for nearly a million print disabled readers. BTBL will be digitizing its recording studios sometime in 2008 and this will mean a huge learning curve for our staff and volunteer narrators. Meanwhile there is already a burgeoning commercial digital book business with services such as Bookshare, Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic, Overdrive, Net Library,, and noncommercial endeavors like the Gutenberg Project.

Part of BTBL's outreach mission is to inform our customers about all these options as we become a hub for the E-book (digitized text files which are listenable and convertible to Braille or large print) and the audio book revolution. “Reading into the Future: An Overview of the National Library Service's Digital Talking Book Test Program” is great article from AFB Access World about a possible digital future for BTBL. Your readers can check it out here:

CSL Connection: Is Braille a thing of the past then?

While it is true there are fewer Braille book readers among our customers due to the proliferation of audio books, I hesitate to say Braille is a dying art form. Thanks to electronic media, Braille is now computerized, making it easy to convert files into Braille via an embosser and providing web Braille books to clients with refreshable Braille displays. People can store digitized Braille files for embossing their books, manuals, newsletters, and more which cuts down on Braille collection shelving. There are Braille transcription societies all over the U.S. and worldwide. Thousands of children learn Braille every year independently and through various state schools for the blind. Braille is a language and an incredible tool for finding one's way around. I've put Braille labels on my music collection, files, dishwasher, microwave, washing machine, wife (just kidding), and I know I'm not alone!

CSL Connection: The California State Library is actively recruiting library professionals like you! Will you share with our readers your experience moving to Sacramento from Tucson? How is working and living in California’s capital different from working and living in a smaller town?

I lived in Seattle for 15 years before moving to the Southwest, so I'm used to the big city! What I miss most about the desert is the intense quiet - you can leave the outskirts of Tucson and stand on a boulder and hear absolutely nothing but the rustle of a cactus wren. Also, work life is far more casual in the Old Pueblo (but folks work just as hard!) I am glad, though, to be back in an urban setting with a vibrant cultural scene and decent public transportation.

I'm excited because Sacramento has great restaurants and a substantial music scene that spans multiple genres. I am a lover of ethnic foods and am an amateur musician with extremely eclectic tastes.   Who could ask for more than all that and a variety of interesting libraries and beautiful outdoor settings! I look forward to exploring the history, terrain, and culture of Northern California. 

You can contact Mike at or (916) 651-0182.





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