DAYTONA BEACH - Joan Cleary grew up in the Great Depression, listening to the radio and letting her imagination fill in the blanks between dialogue and sound effects to visualize story scenes.
Now legally blind, Cleary uses those same skills to "read" the mystery novels she's always loved.
"I love books; I love a library," said the retired teacher who lives in Port Orange. "When I could drive, I could spend the afternoon in a library."
These days, Cleary is getting her books - in the form of cassette tapes and digital recordings - from the Florida Braille and Talking Book Library in Daytona Beach. And she's spending time there, too, as a weekly volunteer who inspects returned recordings and prepares them for reuse.
Tucked away just north of Daytona State College, the library serves about 39,000 customers across Florida. Its staff is getting ready to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its opening in September 1950. Subregional libraries housed in libraries in 10 Florida metropolitan areas are part of its statewide network.
More than 2 million recorded and Braille books, magazines and videos went in and out of the library in the past year, giving it the largest circulation of such libraries nationwide as well as the largest collection.
Its new director, Susan Roberts, wants to increase public awareness of its services so that number will grow.
The library serves less than one quarter of 1 percent of the state's population and "that is nowhere near the need," Roberts said. Based on National Library Service guidelines and state demographics, she estimates that 2 to 4 percent of Florida residents would be eligible for the library's services.
They're available free of charge to people who are unable to see standard size print, have physical disabilities that prevent them from holding a book or turning pages, or have documented reading disabilities.
The Library of Congress covers the cost of books and the equipment needed to play recordings, which are delivered by the Postal Service without charge.
The state covers staff and operating costs, underwriting a budget of nearly $1.8 million for the coming year. The staff of 29 relies heavily on volunteers, who worked more than 80,000 hours in 2009, the equivalent of 39 full-time employees.
"Volunteers are indispensable in this organization," Roberts said.
The rewards, said Jasper Carbone, are many.
"There's the pleasure of knowing our recordings are going to help people who are incapacitated in one way or another, said Carbone, who's been volunteering at the library for 14 years.
Carbone volunteers in the department where books and magazines are recorded. The Daytona Beach program records about 34 books a year and 65 magazines a month, according to recording coordinator Robert Irons.
Customers choose what they want to read from catalogs and also are matched with a "reader adviser" who helps them find books they might like.
Customers' interests reflect those of the general population, reader adviser Judy Evans-Dresner said, with vampire stories popular with teenagers right now and older readers often requesting books they've heard about from friends or through television shows.
"They want to read what everybody else is reading," Evans-Dresner said.