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Andrew Heiskell Library: Celebrating 115 Years of Library Service


The Library for the Blind has a complete set of the Reader's Digest in braille and on talking records, Digital ID 1252834, New York Public LibraryReader's Digest in braille and on records.It seems like just yesterday that we were celebrating the Andrew Heiskell Library's Centennial. On June 3rd, this library will be 115 years old. The library has had a number of names and even more locations over those years, but one thing has not changed: our dedication to serving people who are physically unable to read standard print.

Anniversaries provide a good opportunity to consider the past as well as to plan for the future. So, here's a look back at Talking Book and Braille Service in the United States and here in New York City.


6/3/1895: The Free Circulating Library for the Blind established by Richard Randall Ferry, a manufacturer forced to retire due to his sudden blindness. The collection includes 57 braille books.
2/21/1903: The Free Ciculating Library for the Blind becomes part of The New York Public Library. It's located in a Manhattan neighborhood parish house.
St. Agnes, Work with the blind, Blind Library at St. Agnes, Digital ID 100897, New York Public LibrarySt. Agnes Library1906: The collection is moved to the St. Agnes Branch Library at 444 Amsterdam Avenue.
1911: The collection is again moved, this time to the Central Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, now called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Library staff provide home braille instruction and free delivery of books to people unable to travel to the library.
1931: Federal legislation authorizes the Library of Congress to produce and distribute braille books to blind adults.The New York Public Library becomes one of the first 19 participating libraries in this new Library of Congress Program for the Blind.
1933-34: Talking Books, recorded on 33 1/3 records, are added to the Library of Congress Program for the Blind.
1935: Talking Book Machines, or record players, previously produced by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and sold to patrons and to charities to distribute to patrons unable to afford to buy their own, are now produced under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) by AFB and sponsored by the Library of Congress. The machines are manufactured in New York City.
1938: Forced by space constraints to move to a larger location, the NYPL collection for the blind relocates to an annex facility at 137 West 25th Street.
1952: Federal law extends the talking book and braille service to children.
 Honorable Robert F. Wagner, President, Borough of Manhattan, Digital ID 1252819, New York Public LibraryMayor Robert F. Wagner dedicates the new Library
for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
NYPL's Library for the Blind moves into more spacious though not wheelchair accessible quarters at 166 Avenue of the Americas at Spring Street. The braille collection is moved offsite.
1950s: Recorded books on disc are switched from 33 1/3 rpm to 16 2/3 rpm which allows twice as much material to be recorded on each disc.
1966: Braille and talking book service is extended by federal law to people with physical disabilities that prevent them from reading, holding, or turning pages of a standard print book. Learning disabilities are included under physical disabilities.
1968: Magazines recorded on flexible discs are introduced.
1971: The Citizens Advisory Council, a patron support and advocacy group for NYPL's Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, is formed.
Also in 1971, books recorded on special format cassettes start to circulate.
1972: The first book recorded on flexible disc is produced: Arthur Hailey's Wheels.
1977: New York State approves funds to automate NYPL's Library for the Blind.
1981: The library's Audio Book Studio begins operation to record books to supplement the Library of Congress National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) collection. The studio is located in the 58th Street Branch of NYPL. Volunteers do the recording under the supervision of a staff member.
Also in 1981, the current model of cassette machine, the C-1, begins production.
1986: The last book on hard disc is produced. The first Easy Machines (E-1) for cassettes go into production.
12/12/1991: The Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, renamed the Andrew Heiskell Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, opens in its new and current home at 40 West 20th Street in Manhattan. All collections and services are consolidated in this location, including the Audio Book Studio and the braille collection. The library features two fully accessible public floors, including a Childrens Room, a Young Adult section, an outdoor reading terrace on the second floor, and assistive technology. The library was renamed to honor Andrew Heiskell, the former Chairman of The New York Public Library's Board of Trustees, 1981-1990. Mr. Heiskell was instrumental in helping the library acquire its current location.
1992: A Combination Machine that plays both cassettes and records is introduced by NLS. These machines are discontinued by the 2000s.

1990s: Flexible disc recordings are phased out.

2002: The Andrew Heiskell Library moves to a new computer system that includes an online catalog, dubbed PAWS (Public Access Web System).

2009: In May, NLS produces books and players for a pre-launch test of its new digital talking book service. In August, NLS libraries begin widely distributing the new machines and digital book cartridges to patrons. Patrons are also able to download digital books through the NLS BARD website.

For more information, see "Celebrating One Hundred Years."

Source of NLS information: "Projects & Experiments," Fall 1994, The Library of Congress. Read a History of the National Library Service.


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