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.

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: Accessed April 18, 2014.

Good eyes are your protection

By Rebecca Pou, Project Archivist

goodeyesareyourprotection“Wear glasses if the doctor advises you to do so.” “Don’t rub your eyes with dirty hands.” “If you suspect eye trouble, see an oculist at once.” This sound advice comes from a 1917 trifold leaflet aimed at school children and published by the Illinois Society for the Prevention of Blindness (ISPB), which was founded in 1916.

breadwinnersWhile the pamphlet contains helpful recommendations on eye health, the illustrations and design are particularly charming. Eyes peer out from the sign on the front cover, but we discover that those eyes belong to a boy in spectacles on the page beneath and the sign has cut outs. The eye holes must have been irresistible to children and are surrounded by guidelines for healthy eyes.


Click to enlarge.

The pamphlet stresses that proper eye care beginning in childhood confers life-long benefits, especially in a cartoon comparing two couples from an eye screening in childhood through old age. The pair that cares for their eyes flourishes in life, excelling in academics, extracurricular activities, and, in the case of the man, his profession. The other couple is plagued with nervousness and headaches, and both have trouble with work. While the pamphlet is aimed at children, the lesson is for parents as well. In her old age, the content woman is grateful to her mother for getting her the eye care she needed, while the unfortunate pair’s parents had dismissed the eye examiners’ recommendations.


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And for anyone who might need further convincing, the Society contrasts good sight and bad sight in black and white.


In his landmark book, The Evolution and Significance of the Modern Public Health Campaign, published in 1923, C-E. A. Winslow asserts that education and changed behavior are central to modern public health efforts.  He says, “the fight must be won, not by the construction of public works, but by the conduct of the individual life.” In this pamphlet, the ISPB is clearly appealing to individuals, encouraging them to choose good care over neglect, preventing the difficulties in life caused by blindness and eye disease.

Almost a century after the publication of “Good eyes are your protection,” the ISPB still exists and maintains a website. While their efforts seem more expansive, consisting of education, research and programs, the organization remains “dedicated to the care, protection, and preservation of sight.”