Stanley Lopez has been a patron of the Audiovisual/Talking Book Center in Augusta for more than 20 years.
"I've utilized materials from the center as a form of entertainment, a way to do research, and I even used the center in Augusta when I went away to college because of the personal service I received," said Lopez, a member of the Augusta Chapter of the Georgia Council of the Blind. "It gives you access to books and other materials that someone like me can use. It helps me keep in touch with the world and with different things that are going on."
But some changes are being proposed by the Georgia Libraries for Accessible Statewide Services, the state's network of Talking Book Centers, and he's afraid that he and other patrons will lose the quality of service they now receive, he said.
One of the proposed GLASS changes would centralize materials for talking book centers in Atlanta.
Currently each center has its own collection. Under the proposed change, the local centers would no longer provide the recorded books and other materials directly. The books come on four-track tapes, and patrons listen to them on special machines.
"The service you get here and the attention you get is amazing. They know you," said Lopez. "If they move things, I'll be just another patron in Augusta that gets books out of Atlanta."
The Rev. Chuck Hunt, a member of the Augusta-Richmond County Library Board of Trustees, said a centralized system similar to the one proposed was in place until 1973.
"To me, it seems like they want to try something that has been tried before. That didn't work well, and that's why they changed it. Now it seems like they're trying to go back. I don't see anything wrong with the way things are now," he said.
Augusta was the first in the state outside Atlanta to open a Talking Book Center, he said.
Another proposal would integrate the 12 centers' services and materials into the state's 61 regional library systems.
Library staff would include reader advisers, who would assist blind and physically handicapped patrons.
Gary Swint, the director of the East Central Georgia Regional Library system, which serves the Augusta area, said those reader advisers would devote perhaps 15 percent of their time to the blind and handicapped. "The quality of service is going to suffer," he said, because there will no longer be staff specifically dedicated to serving the blind and handicapped.
GLASS announced in early January that it was proposing changes "that should result in more efficient, effective service to citizens with visual or physical disabilities that prevent the use of regular print materials."
The talking book centers, also known as subregional libraries, serve people who are blind, visually impaired, have a physical disability that prevents them from holding or reading a standard book, or have a reading disability.
"We have used the same model of subregional libraries since the 1970s," said Stella Cone, the director of GLASS. "We had a couple of studies that suggested that maybe we look at possibly more efficient models. We are looking at how we can best serve the patrons and do it responsibly with the budget that we have."
Public meetings have been held throughout the state to discuss the proposed changes. A meeting is scheduled for Thursday in Augusta.
GLASS's path forward depends on the feedback it receives, Cone said.
"We want to hear what their thoughts are," she said. "It can be anything from leave it alone to have only one center. We're not pushing one or the other, and we're not going in to say we are going to close the subregional libraries. We are going in to listen to what they have to say and find out what their thoughts are on how to improve the service."
The local center serves five counties within the East Central Regional Library system -- Richmond, Columbia, Burke, Lincoln and Warren. It also serves Wilkes, McDuffie, Jefferson and Taliaferro counties, which are ouside the East Central system.
"We pull a lot of books that are sent out to the rest of the state," Swint said. "We borrow books from other places as well, but we send out over 20 times as many books as we borrow for our patrons. So we're very much a resource center."
More than 1,000 individuals and about 130 institutions, agencies and schools utilize the Augusta center, said Audrey Bell, its branch manager.
The connection library users have with the center goes beyond materials, said Lopez's wife, Heather. She has used the center for about eight years.
"We are in contact with them fairly often, several times a month," she said.
"We would lose the camaraderie that we have with the local talking book center. They care about what we receive, whether it's damaged or not, and what's important to me, is that they truly care about us as a person."