The Talking Book Reads Itself to the Blind

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

“Suppose some malevolent power suddenly turned all the books in your library against you. Suppose every book within your reach slammed itself shut and lock its covers. Suppose every printed page were blank. What would it do to your life?”1

So begins “The Talking Book Reads Itself to the Blind,” a pamphlet in our collection likely printed in the early-to-mid 1940s.

In the late 1920s, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) began researching ways to provide audio books, or Talking Books, for people with vision loss. Through a partnership with RCA Victor and with government, Carnegie Corporation, and donor support, the Talking Book and Talking Book machine became viable in the 1930s.

In 1931, an act of Congress funded the establishment of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, part of the Library of Congress. Two years later the government allocated $10,000 for the distribution of Talking Books. By 1934, 17 states had ordered 5,000 Talking Book machines from the AFB; assured that Talking Book machines were sufficiently available, the National Library Service began producing and distributing Talking Books.2

This service was life-changing for many people with vision loss. In the pamphlet, the AFB estimated that three-quarters of the more than 9,200 blind people in the greater New York area did not know Braille. But the Talking Book machines were expensive—the AFB sold them at cost for $42. The AFB’s goal was to amass enough donations to bring 2,500 Talking Book machines to those who lacked the funds to buy one themselves.1

"Sensitive fingers quickly master the simple dials and controls which make the TALKING BOOK read more slowly or a little louder at their touch." From “The Talking Book Reads Itself to the Blind.”

“Sensitive fingers quickly master the simple dials and controls which make the TALKING BOOK read more slowly or a little louder at their touch.” From “The Talking Book Reads Itself to the Blind.”

By the time the AFB printed this booklet, a person with vision loss could apply to the Library of Congress or a local library for the blind to receive Talking Books by mail, free of charge. “Uncle Sam even pays the postage.”1 The AFB offered more than 20 books, and planned to add two to three new ones every month.1

The list of available books is a fun look at what titles were popular in the 1930s and 1940s. Some items remain classics, while others have lost their luster over the years. Maybe it’s time to revive interest in Booth Tarkington’s Presenting Lily Mars or John Masefield’s The Bird of Dawning.

A list of available talking books advertised in "The Talking Book Reads Itself to the Blind." Click to enlarge.

A list of available Talking Books advertised in “The Talking Book Reads Itself to the Blind.” Click to enlarge.

For more on the history of Talking Books, visit the American Foundation for the Blind’s online exhibit.

References
1. The Talking book reads itself to the blind. New York: American Foundation for the Blind.

2. American Foundation for the Blind. AFB Talking Book Exhibit. 2009. Available at: http://www.afb.org/talkingbook/home.asp. Accessed April 18, 2014.

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