The Origins of the Perkins Library

A woman sits at a desk in front of a glass cabinet filled with tactile objects, plants and mounted birds.

Library at the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind in South Boston, ca. 1900

The origins of library services for people who are blind and the history of Perkins School for the Blind are intimately intertwined. When Samuel Gridley Howe opened the doors of the school in the summer of 1832, he had recently returned from a trip to visit schools for the blind in Europe. He brought with him two teachers and a small number of embossed books. In that era it was commonly thought that the blind did not need to read because others could simply read to them. Howe understood the necessity of being able to read for oneself, and considered literacy an educational right.

Building a library

Howe scoured North America and Europe for books to create a small library for his students. Dismayed by the scarcity of tactile books, he became determined to create them himself. Within three years, Howe had designed Boston Line Type, an embossed alphabet system that he considered superior to all other tactile writing systems.

Understanding the necessity of keeping the funding for the school and printing venture separate, Howe began soliciting donations to subsidize the cost of publishing textbooks for students who were blind. He hired a printer, Stephen P. Ruggles, who designed a press that could produce the embossed alphabet. In 1835, Howe printed his first Boston Line Type work, "Acts of the Apostles," with donations from residents of New Bedford and Nantucket, Massachusetts. It was soon joined by "The Blind Child’s Book," a reading textbook compiled by Howe.

Thinking big

Howe was not content with simply supplying curriculum for his own students. He aspired to supply eager readers throughout the world with "books of all kinds, religious, moral, and scientific, as well as works of diversion." However, Howe had difficulty raising enough money to keep the press rolling. Recognizing that such a library needed public support, he went to Washington D.C. in 1836 to try to persuade Congress to establish a national lending library service for readers who were blind. He tried several times unsuccessfully in the following decades to rally educators and administrators in support of a nationally funded library. Howe’s dream was finally fulfilled nearly 100 years later by the establishment of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in 1931.

The Perkins printing department continued sporadically to print tactile books as funds allowed. When donations were scarce, the press was idle. After Howe’s death in 1876, Michael Anagnos, his son-in-law and successor as director of Perkins, decided to create a $50,000 endowment to make the press self-supporting. The idea was so popular that Anagnos succeeded in raising $100,000 from supporters all over the country. He renamed the Perkins printing department Howe Memorial Press in tribute to his father-in-law.

After the establishment of its endowment fund, Howe Memorial Press printed books steadily and in larger quantities. By 1885, Perkins was able to expand its lending library, mailing books to readers who were blind throughout New England. Howe Press donated copies of all its publications to public libraries throughout the country so they could offer services to their patrons who were blind.

By the turn of the century, about 75 public libraries in large cities had begun actively creating collections of tactile books. However, most of the titles available were either schoolbooks or religious materials. Demand for adult general interest tactile books far exceeded supply. Aside from the American Printing House for the Blind, which focused exclusively on textbooks, there were only two other producers, the Pennsylvania School for the Blind and Perkins’ Howe Press.

Inside printing room with machinery, stacks of books, and personnel.

Printing and binding raised type books in the printing room at the Howe Memorial Press. Dennis Reardon, Manager of Howe Press, stands at the left. Two women operate the press and stitch bindings, 1909.

Between 1910 and 1930, the American Library Association (ALA) called repeatedly for the establishment of a national lending library service. Perkins Librarian Laura M. Sawyer, head of the ALA advocacy committee, was a tireless promoter who kept the need constantly before Congress until her death in 1925. The American Foundation for the Blind and Perkins' own Helen Keller joined the ALA’s campaign, and, in 1931, Congress passed the Pratt-Smoot Act, which established the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS).

The measure appropriated $100,000 annually to the Library of Congress, which was charged with creating tactile books, mostly in braille, and some in Moon type. Twenty-seven regional depository libraries circulated the books to patrons within their geographic regions. Perkins, which had been mailing library books throughout New England for 50 years, was among the first of these regional libraries. The circulation of tactile books throughout New England doubled from 11,000 to 22,000 during the first year that Perkins operated an NLS regional library.

The NLS-supplied tactile books, some of which were printed at Howe Press, were eagerly read by patrons throughout the United States. However, many people who were blind were unable to read braille or Moon type, and in 1934, the American Foundation for the Blind successfully advocated to amend the Pratt-Smoot Act to include recorded books as well as tactile material. The first Talking Books, recorded on 12-inch, 33-1/3 r.p.m. records, arrived at Perkins in October 1934. They were immediately popular with readers in New England and elsewhere in the United States. Circulation of the recorded titles skyrocketed, and the library was hard-pressed to build shelves fast enough to accommodate them as they arrived from the National Library Service.

Perkins Library today

Today, the Perkins Library, partially funded by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, serves thousands of New England readers who are blind, visually impaired or unable to read print material. The Library provides talking books and braille materials to readers throughout New England, who range in age from seven months to well over 100 years old. Additionally, the Perkins Library provides reference services to its patrons, magazines in alternate formats, books of regional interest recorded in the library’s digital studio, videos with audio descriptions, large print materials and audio access to daily newspapers.

A woman sits at a desk in front of rows of wooden book shelves.

Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind Library in South Boston, ca. 1893.

Suggested citation for scholars

McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Perkins Braille and Talking Book Library. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.