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Large-print: an option known to too few readers

By Bruce ManuelBook editor of The Christian Science monitor / September 16, 1981

Readers who have difficulty with ordinary-size print now can find a wide choice of books printed in type that is twice as large. The selection includes current best-selling novels, nonfiction, poetry, literary classics, biographies, Bibles, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and cookbooks.

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Publishers in the United States currently offer more than 4,000 of these "large print" editions, and some 650 new titles are being published here or imported this year.

Although most of these books can be found in the nation's larger public libraries, and some are for sale in stores, many people don't know about them -- and, as a result, may miss out on the pleasure of reading.

According to a 1978 survey conducted by the Book Industry Study Group, many eldely Americans give up reading because they find it difficult to cope with ordinary-size print.

It is these readers that large-printbook companies hope to reach, according to Virginia Reiser, a senior editor at G. K. Hall & Co. in Boston, the oldest American publisher of large-print books still active in the field. Large-point editions were first developed by Ulverscroft, a British publisher, in 1964. Hall entered the field in 1971.

Early large-print books were photographic enlargements of ordinary pages, which turned out to be a mixed blessing: the type was enormous, but so were the books. A short novel looked more like an atlas, which made reading anywhere but at a table awkward if not impossible.

Over the last decade, however, Ulverscroft, Hall, and other publishers have made vast improvements. Today each book is specially designed and typeset, rather than enlarged from an existing version. The product is smaller, lighter, and more attractive -- in fact, indistinguishable on the outside from ordinary books. Inside, however, the difference is dramatic: The type is clear and heavy; the paper opaque, yet light in weight; the spacing between words and lines carefully adjusted for ease in reading.

Large-print books are enthusiastically received by readers who know about them, says Dorothy Becker, coordinator of reader and information services at the Boston Public Library, which buys at least one copy of practically every general-interest book published in large print. "The collection is well used, especially by the elderly, even if they have very little problem with their eyes , because the reading is so much easier," says Ms. Becker.

The users are not just those patrons who come to the downtown building or its branches. The Boston library has a "Homesmobile", which takes 3,500 volumes a month (one-third of which are large print) to retirement and nursing homes.

Libraries in smaller communities, especially those that appeal to retirees, often maintain large-point collections. Florida's St. Petersburg Public Library has nearly several thousand large-print titles, according to Patricia M. Broad, chief of library extension.

Some of the volumes are donated by individuals who place standing monthly orders with large-print publishers, and then turn over the books to the library after reading them.

For four years, until funding cutbacks brought the effort to a close last month, the St. Petersburg library operated a program similar to Boston's. Each month "Senior Citizen Bookreach" took 4,000 volumes to 1,800 readers in residences for senior citizens and in nursing homes. Forty percent of the books were in large print. "Eyesight is not a matter of age," Ms. Broad explains. "Many of the people in their 80s and so on had excellent eyesight. The assumption that all people in nursing and retirement homes would need large print was quite incorrect."

For those who did want the larger type, however, the program made quite a difference, Ms. Broad points out. A survey indicated that those who did no reading or who read fewer than 12 books a year prior to the program were reading from 12 to 72 books annually while it was funded.

The success of the St. Petersburg program could be repeated elsewhere in the future, according to the four biggest US distributors of large-print books. They anticipate a potential audience on the upswing, since the elderly segment of the US population is growing.

These publishers remain somewhat cautious, however. So far, the growth of sales has been slow, according to Oscar B. Stiskin, US representative for Ulverscroft. Today the competition among large-print publishers is growing at the same time library budgets are being pruned.