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

Thomas Alva Edison at age thirty with his rotating cylinder phonograph.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 CollectionOriginal Helen Keller letter, The New York Public Library, Andrew Heiskell Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped CollectionThroughout 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 BlindPhoto courtesy of the American Foundation for the BlindA 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 BlindPhoto courtesy of the American Foundation for the BlindOne 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."

 Nicholas L. Pliakis.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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