There is nothing quite like wandering the stacks of a well-stocked library. One cannot help being struck—perhaps for the hundredth time—by the sheer amount of knowledge and narrative generated just by those lucky enough to have access to a good printing press and publisher. Often, I’ve entered my school library on a quick, focused, research-motivated search for one text and stayed until closing as my brief jaunt turns into excited search spurred by John Dewey’s eerie prescience. At such moments, it can feel like the fabric of the world is becoming suddenly apparent.
Yet for blind readers, such experiences are not as accessible. In 1868, the Boston Public Library had a small library for the blind, but a national program did not yet exist. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped was founded in 1931 so “that all may read.” The program circulates recorded and Braille materials to libraries that then distribute them to handicapped readers through services like Talking Book libraries—programs often funded by Library Service and Technology Act grants from the Institute for Museum and Library Services. The Service functions through 56 regional and 56 subregional libraries in America and offers 64 million copies of more than 341,982 titles.
Braille was invented by a knowledge-hungry, blind French teenager in the early 19th century, the language’s bumps developed from an old French military code. Surely at the time Louis Braille would have been unable to imagine that books could one day speak, or that a diffuse web of zeros and ones could someday allow for all the world’s knowledge to be instantly accessible. Yet this is the world we now inhabit, and digital books present a new frontier for blind as well as print disabled readers.
In 2010, the Internet Archive announced that it had more than doubled the number of books available to print disabled readers. Through a format called Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY), more than one million books of all kinds were digitized and uploaded to the Internet Archive. In the press release, IA founder and DPLA Steering Committee member Brewster Kahle speaks to digital libraries’ untapped potential. “Every person deserves the opportunity to enhance their lives through access to the books that teach, entertain and inspire…. Bringing access to huge libraries of books to the blind and print disabled is truly one of the benefits of the digital revolution.” DAISY books can be read aloud on devices like Intel Readers or the proprietary NLS player that allow for greater control of the text’s presentation than an audiobook might. Apps like Read2Go provide print disabled readers with access to Bookshare texts and a number of tools that make reading easier for them.
Digital books and the projects that make, collect, and distribute them, then, are not simply about making the physical into the digital. Pulitzer prize-winning poet Philip Schultz wrote about learning to read in his New York Times op-ed “Words Failed, Then Saved Me”: “I’d lie in bed silently imitating the words my mother read, imagining the taste, heft and ring of each sound as if it were coming out of my mouth…I imagined the words and their sounds being a kind of key with which I would open an invisible door to a world previously denied me.” No longer does it take a doting mother or the imagination of a Pulitzer Prize winner to free words locked in lifeless ink and change them into endlessly repeatable sounds—and perhaps, someday, as-yet-unimaginable languages and formats. If an 18-year old French boy can invent a new language for the blind, then surely librarians, app designers, engineers, teachers, and citizens the world over can not only digitize all the world’s knowledge, but also bring knowledge to all the world.