By Jane O'Brien
BBC News, Washington
Campaigners for the blind fear that budget cuts will lead to delays
Blind people across the US fear they may lose access to free audiobooks because of a budget shortfall at the Library of Congress which operates the service.
The National Library needs an extra $19.1m (£9.5m) a year to transfer its collection of audiobooks from antiquated tape cassettes to the latest digital format using flash technology.
But Congress is expected to grant only $12.5m (£6.25m) a year, which will delay completion of the project until 2013 and could cut the production of new audiobooks.
"There are 1.3m blind people in the United States and around 800,000 are patrons of the Library of Congress Talking Books programme. It is their primary source of reading material," says Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind.
"Delaying this digital programme means that probably half of those patrons are going to be without books for a significant period of time."
The tape cassette machines distributed by the Library of Congress are no longer manufactured, and spare parts are difficult to get hold of.
Mr Danielsen says they are in danger of breaking down before the new digital players are introduced, causing the service to collapse completely.
And after October 2010 no more cassette books will be made, leaving some blind people unable to play the new format until the Library can afford enough digital players.
"Just imagine having no access to a public library or any source of reading material for two or three years," says Mr Danielsen. "It's a terrible situation to put blind people in."
Ellen Ringlein, a Maryland resident who regularly uses the Library of Congress's service, described the impact the funding cuts could have on her.
"I probably read a hundred or more books a year and the main source I use is the Library," she told the BBC.
"It's pretty devastating if suddenly that's not available to me anymore. The opportunities for entertainment and personal growth will not be there."
Only 1% - about 2,000 - of all books published annually are made into audiobooks.
Unabridged versions are generally only available through the National Library Service, which is also the only source of academic material, magazines and a wide variety of non-fiction.
"We're in the middle of a political campaign right now and most of the candidates have written books which help me decide who I might want to vote for," says Jessie Hartle, who has been blind from birth.
"It would be a great loss if we were not able to keep up with current affairs and trends through educational books that are provided by the Library programme."
The NFB says the number of audiobooks digitised each year could also be cut by a quarter during the transfer period unless more money is made available.
"This is a matter of equality. It's whether we're going to put blind people on the back burner and say they don't need access to printed material like the rest of society - or whether we're going to give them equality with access to the same printed material everybody else takes for granted," says John Pare, an NFB executive director.
The Library of Congress is expected to start its digital audiobook programme at the end of the year and under current funding proposals, it could take six years to complete.
At a recent Senate hearing, the Librarian of Congress, Dr James Billington, said services were being cut across the board but books for the blind were being severely affected.
He said he understood the need for austerity but added: "If we are stretched much further we may soon reach breaking point."
Congress is expected to finalise the budget before it breaks for the summer.
An audio version of this story was broadcast on In Touch, BBC Radio 4's magazine programme for people who are blind and partially sighted. You can listen to recent programmes, get a podcast or transcript on the In Touch website