Thursday, May 20, 2010

June 3: The Andrew Heiskell Library (b. 1895)

The New York Public Library is marking the 115th anniversary of the founding of the Talking Book and Braille Service in the US and in New York City. It started in 1895 with 57 braille books, a free circulating library set up by a blind man, Richard Randall Ferry (1839-1906). Ferry had been a prosperous hat manufacturer before becoming blind in 1891; he had the resources and the drive to get something like this started. By the time of Ferry's death (according to his obituary) there were 10,000 volumes.

In 1909, Ferry's assistant on the project, and one of the library's trustees, educator Clara A. Williams, wrote a plea in the New York Times, defending New York Point System against other braille formats. Her letter points to the state of flux such efforts faced just a century ago: "It seems a dreadful thing to me, for those living in New York State, and New York City, to allow any persons to come in from other States with a system of print which can be proved to be inferior, and tell us what we should do in our public schools, &c.... Miss Keller is certainly a wonderful woman, but she would, it seems to me, be biased in favor of any type for which her friends stood and it would be most natural for her to take the stand chosen by her teacher..." There were also concerns about whether the library would include a Bible (when "nearly every reader at the library has been presented with a Bible and has it in his own home").

The collection became part of the NYPL in 1903, and expanded over the years, in size, in format, and services offered. The technological history of recordings in the twentieth century is reflected in how audio books were prepared for blind readers over the years: hard discs, flexible discs, cassettes, and digital files have all taken their turn, in tandem with the devices required to play them.

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