Tuesday, July 13, 2010

American Printing House for the Blind Museum and Library

"The Greatest Museum in Louisville!"

One of the great secrets of Louisville is that it is home to one of the most interesting and--in my opinion--extraordinary museums I've come across in years. The museum is rather new, but it showcases and educates visitors on a much older institution: the American Printing House for the Blind. The first photo here shows the sign outside of the building, which interestingly depicts the name of the company in Latin letters AND large-size Braille! Part of the delight of finding this place is that it really is a landmark, not simply in Louisville, but in the United States and world-wide. In the following photograph, you will see an historical marker which indicates its historical status. As it notes, the American Printing House for the Blind has been around since 1858 and is the oldest non-profit agency for the blind in the US and the largest publishing house for the blind in the world--quite a distinction!

As I mentioned, the museum is a new component and serves to educate people on the enterprise of blind typographic and cultural history, blind publishing, and blind pedagogy and education. There are interactive stations for younger visitors, as well as for adults. One of the staff members at the museum told me about various processes of producing Braille books and how you can get a book (or "your book") made into Braille.

The museum is truly extraordinary. An perhaps it felt even more so with no other tourists milling around! The Printing House, its museum, and library are not in the center of town, but more toward the east side of Louisville, on a fairly quiet street. I rode a bike the morning I found it, parked the bike along a fence and walked in. It was quiet and air-conditioned and I asked the person at the front desk about the museum hours. They directed me up an elevator, which opened to this fine entrance above.

Throughout the museum you will find items such as these--books in Braille and other books for the blind. Apparently, in the 19th century, according to the history of blind typography, printing, and writing, there were typography wars or perhaps even "Braille wars." What this meant is that several individuals were vying for the best mode of tactile type for use in printing for the blind. Some systems or shapes looked like crescents, for example, while others were simply raised Latin letters!

Somewhere in the museum, there was a quote about the best systems of printing for the blind were those systems created by they blind, not by those created by someone with sight. Below is a display dedicated to the good Mr. Braille himself.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about Braille is the story behind it. Or at least part of the story. Braille himself devised the system based on an earlier writing system called "Night Writing," created by Charles Barbier at the request of Napoleon. The French leader wanted a silent communication system that soldiers could use during the night--silent communication for military and warfare. The system, which was called sonography, was based on a 6x6 matrix of dots that soldiers could pass their hands across in the dark and execute orders or other military actions. Braille adapted this and the rest is history.

Various tools for blind printing can be seen above. And more books below.

Above is an encyclopedia done completely in Braille--if I remember correctly it was World Book, and contained well over 140 volumes! Below are musical renderings into blind-friendly text. I'm not sure if they technically call this "Braille," but the notations are raised.

Above and below we find the library portion of the APHB. The museum was on one floor and the library was just above it. Finding the library was a little hard, since it wasn't advertised. But I was convinced that it had to be in the building--you don't have such a remarkable organization with a museum and NOT have a library! I spoke with two wonderful individuals in the library area, one of whom was in the general library area, the other in an office down the hall from the library. In the latter, I was introduced to the librarian/archivivst, who was most welcoming and told me about some of the collections. She also showed me some remarkable archival materials including a document written in Japan in the late 1970s on reading for the blind on computers (this would have been a precursor to "reading online" for the blind)--simply amazing! Another document was from the 1920s and dealt with the history of blindness and fair treatment of the blind at that time--the document was revolutionary in that it is one of the first egalitarian writings regarding the blind: treating those with blindness as human beings rather than anomolies.

On my way out of the museum, I discovered this little interactive children's station. I bent down and found that it was actually a series of goggles with gradually worse obfuscation. They are meant to show various degrees of blindness. I thought that this was a fine pedagogical tool, and not just for children! I think many times adults fail to realize the full implications of not just blindness, but other physical impairments that make it difficult to live in our world. This was a wonderful museum, and surely under-utilized and under-visited. It's good to find a museum where you learn something, but even better to find a museum that makes you more aware of ourselves and those around us.

1 comment:

  1. I went to a contemporary art fair in Shanghai recently, which was a real eye-opener. Chinese contemporary art has come leaps and bounds from the watery Zen landscapes to huge canvases of strange-looking beings. The prices being asked and paid were huge too.
    Oriental, if not Chinese, my print of Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting, http://en.wahooart.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8BWS6R, bought some time ago from wahooart.com, is as lovely as ever.