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Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library

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The Andrew Heiskell Library provides talking books and magazines and braille for people who are blind, visually impaired, or are otherwise physically unable to read standard print. The library serves residents who live in New York City and Long Island.

  • Find braille and audio books: PAWS catalog
  • Check Find it Fast for links to programs and services at the library and from other agencies.

    Fiction and nonfiction selections range from classics to bestsellers in many subject areas. There is also a meeting room for concerts, lectures, and other special events. Public programs are barrier-free and are open to the general public, free of charge. Staff at the Andrew Heiskell Library also conduct one-on-one computer classes using assistive technology. If you are interested, contact the library to schedule an appointment.

    The Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library opened in its current location on West 20 Street in 1991. Formerly the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, the facility was renamed in honor of the former chairman of The New York Public Library's Board of Trustees who served from 1981 to 1990. The library is a Regional Library of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress, serving New York City for braille and talking books and Long Island, NY for braille books.

    40 West 20th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues), New York, NY 10011-4211 Map & Directions 

    Telephone: 212-206-5400;   24-hour voice mail: 212-206-5425;  Fax: 212-206-5418;  Email: talkingbooks@nypl.org

    Onsite Hours:  Monday 10 to 5; Tuesday 12 to 7; Wednesday 10 to 5; Thursday 12 to 7; Friday 10 to 5; Saturday 10 to 5; Sunday closed

    Telephone Service Hours:  Monday 10 to 5; Tuesday 10 to 7; Wednesday 10 to 5; Thursday 10 to 7; Friday 10 to 5; Saturday 10 to 5; Sunday closed

     

    Reserve a PC READ MORE ›

    Assistive Technology and Technology Coaching at the Andrew Heiskell Library

    Kurzweil Computers: The library has computers equipped with Kurzweil Reading software for public use. These devices scan text and convert it into synthetic speech. To make an appointment to use this equipment or to learn more about it, please call the library at 212-206-5400.

    Adaptive Computer Technology: The library has computers equipped with JAWS screen reader, MAGic screen enlarging software, Duxbury braille translation software, braille embossers, and refreshable braille displays. To make an appointment to learn how to use these, or to reserve use of the refreshable braille display, please call the library at 212-206-5400. JAWS requires typing abilty; MAGic requires users to be able to type and to use a computer mouse.

    Technology Workshops: Ongoing classes are currently being offered in English for Basic Computer Skills, Windows, typing through an adaptive software training system downloading books from BARD, JAWS screen reader, MAGic screen enlarging software, iPads and other iOS devices, VoiceOver, NVDA screen reader, and the Kurzweil computers. You must be able to type to take these classes. To learn MAGic, you must be able to use a computer mouse.  Additional workshops are offered on apps for independant livingm apps for urban areas, self-advocacy online, and doing database research. Class offerings are always changing and expanding, so please let us know what else you would like to learn about. Call the library at 212-206-5400 to make an register or to find out more.

    Closed Circuit Television (CCTVs): These devices can enlarge text up to sixty times and can be adjusted for brightness, contrast, reverse image, and color scheme.  Our Optelec Clearview Plus Speech will also read aloud the text, in a variety of different voices and can read many languages.

    Other Equipment: The library has handheld magnifiers, braille writers, a Perkins Smart Brailler, an InTact sketchpad for creating tactile drawings, a Victor reader, an Apple computer, a Humanware ScannR, and braille and large-print keyboards.  In addition, there is a sound amplification system to assist the hearing impaired who wish to enjoy our public programs.

    We also host annual Technology Fairs where patrons can try out and learn about new equipment.

    To find out what's available at other New York Public Library branches, check services for persons with disabilities.

    Other Programs and Services Available at Andrew Heiskell Library:

    We host a variety of adult programs,  including writing workshops, hands-on art workshops, concerts, guide dog users meetup groups, support groups, talks about vision loss, talks by visually impaired artists, resource fairs, and an oral history project.  We have a children's room with toys and books, and hold regular children's programs and storytimes.

    Citizen's Advisory Council

    The Citizen's Advisory Council meets periodically to discuss issues of importance to the library and its users. If you are a patron of the library, and its services and programs are important to you, you should consider attending future meetings. All individuals registered for services from the Andrew Heiskell Library are eligible to be members of the Citizen's Advisory Council. In addition, the parents or guardians of children under the age of sixteen may be members.

    All meetings are held at the library.READ MORE ›

    Services to Institutions

    Do you work in a nursing home, a school or other institution that services persons who can no longer read standard print, or have difficulty holding a book? Institutions can register individual patrons for talking book and/or braille service by using the Adult Application. You may also register to receive a deposit collection in your agency using the Application for Institutions, for use by eligible patrons. Deposit collections are typically 30 to 50 books loaned to an agency and rotated quarterly, so your patrons will always have a new batch of books to choose  READ MORE ›

    Disability Information: Links by Category

     

    A Short History of the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library

    Thomas Alva Edison at age thirty with his rotating cylinder phonograph.

    1995, the centennial year of The New York Public Library, also marked the 100th anniversary of the Andrew Heiskell Library. This brief history is from the brochure the library produced to commemorate the event.

    When applying for a patent for his tinfoil phonograph in 1877, Thomas Edison listed "phonograph books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part" as one of the ten potential uses for his invention. Phonograph and record technology was in need of considerable development, however, before talking books could become a viable medium.

    The New York Free Circulating Library for the Blind was established in 1895 by Richard Randall Ferry, a wealthy hat manufacturer who suddenly became blind. When this budding braille collection was formally incorporated into The New York Public Library in 1903, it was housed in a Manhattan neighborhood parish house. The collection was moved to the St. Agnes Branch at 444 Amsterdam Avenue in 1906, and was again relocated to a larger site in the Central Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in 1911. Library staff provided home braille instruction and free delivery of books to those persons who were unable to travel to the Central Building's Reading Room.

    Original Helen Keller letter, The New York Public Library, Andrew Heiskell Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped Collection.

    Throughout her adult career, Helen Keller was renowned as both a supporter of libraries and a staunch advocate for improved braille services for blind and deaf-blind individuals.

    Pictured: A letter written by Helen Keller. She used a standard typewriter to draft the letter to head librarian Lucille A. Goldthwaite. The printed signature is her own. [Text version of the letter]

    An alternative medium still had to be found for the large proportion of blind and visually impaired persons who, because of aging or other physical disabilities, lacked the fingertip sensitivity needed to read braille with ease.

    Technology for reproducing the sounds of the human voice had come a long way since the invention of the first tinfoil phonograph. The revolving cylinder of the 19th century was replaced by the 78 rpm flat platter. But these early disk recordings posed a number of problems: high cost, limited playing time, excessive weight, and fragility.

    The 1930s' advances in radio engineering and motion picture soundtrack technology, which accelerated the development of the slow speed, close-grooved record, were soon to make Thomas Edison's vision of the "talking book" a practical reality.

    In 1931, federal legislation authorized an annual appropriation to the Library of Congress for the production of braille books for blind adults, to be distributed nationally through a system of regional libraries. The New York Public Library was one of the 19 original participants in this newly established network. Three years later, talking books on LP phonograph records were introduced into the program.

    Historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, a number of Shakespeare's plays and poems, and a variety of fictional works were among the first talking books issued. In order to meet the public's hungry demand for a broader selection of reading materials, the Library of Congress came up with a mechanism for obtaining permission from publishers to record printed works royalty free.

    Space constraints at the central building led the Library to move the braille and talking book collections to an annex facility located at 137 West 25th Street in 1938.

    Photo courtesy of the American Foundation for the Blind.

    A thriving depression-era WPA project supported the ongoing manufacture and repair of free talking book machines for eligible readers. WPA funding for the production of machines and parts expired in 1942 as the nation's resources were committed to the World War II effort. Existing federal laws specifying preferential treatment for U.S. military personnel blinded in service to their country enabled regional libraries to supply talking books and playback equipment to postwar rehabilitation centers.

    Early recording sessions required a flawless rendition in a single take, as editing techniques had not yet been perfected. Props commonly used in popular radio shows of the day-such as the bell and seltzer bottle shown in this photograph-provided the desired sound effects.

    Pictured: Blind technicians testing talking book machines in a late 1930s Works Progress Administration (WPA) employment program.

    In the program's first decade, famous persons often read from their own works. Among the participating celebrities were: Eleanor Roosevelt (This Is My Story), Stephen Vincent Benet (John Brown's Body), and W. Somerset Maugham (Of Human Bondage). In subsequent years, the evolving talent pool included such luminaries of stage, screen, and radio as Eva Le Gallienne, Joan Crawford, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Alfred Drake.

    Photo courtesy of the American Foundation for the Blind.
     

    One of the program's most prolific and beloved narrators was actor Alexander Scourby. Mr. Scourby recorded more than 400 titles for the program over nearly half a century-including The Bible, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and Joyce's Ulysses.

    Pictured: Narrators recording The Romantic Age for the talking book program in 1938. L-R, facing camera: Lloyd Bridges, Ann Tyrrell, George Coppin, Wesley Addy, George Keane, Alwin Back, William Nichols, and Peggy Converse.

    The talking book program exercises great care in choosing just the right voice to be reproduced on a given recording. Preparation by the narrator entails verification of pronunciation, analyzing the work's flavor and mood, studying the characters in order to portray them accurately, and working out dialects and inflection. Library patrons frequently express a desire to read anything recorded by a favored narrator.

    A federal law enacted in 1952 extended Braille and talking book service to children. Additional legislation applying to individuals who were unable to read or use standard printed materials due to physical limitations other than blindness was passed in 1966. Persons having difficulty holding a book or turning pages because of such conditions as cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, or a stroke were now entitled to receive this library service. The new law also applied to persons with medically diagnosed reading disabilities such as dyslexia.

    The library moved to more substantial quarters at 166 Avenue of the Americas at Spring Street in 1953. During the 1960s, the materials collection continued to grow, and recorded media formats such as open-reel tapes, audiocassettes, and flexible discs gradually emerged.

    While automation of circulation procedures and patron files provided a major service enhancement, this building's insufficient shelving capacity led to the eventual removal of the braille collection to a library unit located off-site. Architectural barriers precluding wheelchair access, as well as a lack of space for public reading rooms, underscored the Library's overwhelming need for a new facility.

    The 1970s heralded technology breakthroughs which offered persons with print impairment increased access to the vast wealth of information resources available throughout Central and neighborhood branch libraries.

    In 1978, The New York Public Library became the first public library system in the world to offer Kurzweil Reading Machine service. This optical scanning device converts printed text into synthetic speech-thus extending the thousands of books and periodicals not available in braille or recorded formats to a whole new population of readers. Other electronic reading aids, such as closed-circuit television magnifiers, allow the user to adjust the size, contrast, and brightness of the letters on a page.

    The audio book Studio opened at the 58th Street Branch of The New York Public Library in 1981. Created to supplement the holdings available in the national collection by recording talking book titles of local interest, the Studio continuously recruits and trains a talented team of volunteer narrators, monitors, and reviewers.

    Volunteers have held a place of honor throughout this Library's history. Selected activities on behalf of the service, conducted over the years by scores of dedicated men and women, have included machine repair, tape duplication, braille transcription, legislative and budget action, and live literary readings at public events.

    On December 12, 1991, the Andrew Heiskell Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped opened its doors at 40 West 20th Street. Situated in Manhattan's "Ladies Mile" historic district, this Central Library Service occupies the lower six floors of a renovated 1910 neo-renaissance loft building. The facility is still a regional library in the Library of Congress National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped network. All collections and services have been consolidated under one roof.

    Behind-the-scenes operations include an expanded Audio Book Studio, as well as a high-volume materials-handling system designed to process 5,000 items per day for shipment to registered individuals, schools, and institutions based in New York City and Long Island.

    The building features barrier-free architecture; reading rooms which house browsing collections of braille, recorded, and large-print books; a children's room and young adult section; and an outdoor reading terrace. Spaces have been allocated for new electronic information resources, and public meeting rooms are able to accommodate a wide range of cultural and educational programs.

    As the Andrew Heiskell Library moves into the 21st century, The New York Public Library's continuing commitment to the provision of quality public service, coupled with the promise of future publishing innovations and technological development, will ensure "That All May Read."

    Andrew Heiskell. Photo: Nicholas L. Pliakis.

    The library was renamed in 1991 in honor of Andrew Heiskell, pictured at the right, who was the former Chairman of the Board of Trustees, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. Andrew Heiskell's efforts to galvanize support for construction of the current building was one of his many extraordinary achievements during his chairmanship from 1981–1990. 

    The library is now a full service central library providing a circulation collection, full access service five days a week, a 24 hour phone line for patrons to order books any time of the day or evening, an online catalog unique to our collections, and free delivery of Braille books, books on tape and the playback machines for those tapes.

    [Original pamphlet  "Celebrating One Hundred Years" published by The New York Public Library, The Branch Libraries, 1996]
    Photo research & exhibit notes: Diane Wolfe
    Special appreciation is extended to Robert Sink, Archivist, The New York Public Library

    References

    Koestler, Frances A. The Unseen Minority: A Social History of Blindness in America. New York: David McKay, 1976.

    Majeska, Marilyn L. Talking Books: Pioneering and Beyond. Washington, D.C.: National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, The Library of Congress, 1988.

    National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. That All May Read: Library Service for Blind and Physically Handicapped People. Washington, D.C.: The Library of Congress, 1983.

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