From December 1935 until June 1942, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) made and distributed talking books as part of a WPA project. The project was federally funded through the WPA, Library of Congress, and the American Foundation for the Blind. The talking books were made for the Library of Congress. The most direct advantage of listening to books was that they provided accessible books to three out of four blind adults unable or not proficient at finger-reading. The program also provided jobs for people with vision loss during the depression.
Access to talking books required access to the equipment needed to play them. The Talking Book machine WPA project produced machines that were distributed free to readers who were blind in the same way the books were distributed. Access no longer would be dictated by the ability to pay for a talking book machine. 23,505 Talking Book machines had been manufactured and distributed by the end of the project in 1942.
Today the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS), which is part of the Library of Congress, offers a free program for individuals of all ages who have a disability that prevents them from reading print. As a branch of the (NLS), The Perkins Library has over 150,000 titles in circulation and 22,500 patrons enrolled for Library services.
Koestler, Frances. The Unseen Minority, “Chapter 10: The Talking Book”. Available on AFB.org. Accessed February 28, 2023.
“Talking Books and Disabilities,” National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. Available on LOC.gov. Accessed February 28, 2023
“More than 23,000 WPA Machines Built,” AFB Talking Book Exhibit. Online Museum. Available on AFB.org. Accessed February 28, 2023
“A Works Progress Administration Project,” AFB Talking Book Exhibit. Online Museum. Available on AFB.org. Accessed February 28, 2023.
Audio described film from 1932, “WPA Aids the Blind” featuring Helen Keller. Available on YouTube courtesy AFB.org. Transcript of WPA AIds the Blind film available at AFB.org. Accessed February 28, 2023.
AFB Talking Book Exhibit. Online Museum. Available on AFB.org. Accessed February 28, 2023
Hopkins, Harry L. “1935 WPA Talking Book Machine Address,” Historical Recordings Collection, AG206-2022-20, Perkins School for the Blind Archives.
Unidentified speaker: Mr. Harry L. Hopkins, administrator of the Works Progress Administration has just dropped into the Talking Book Studio of the American Foundation for the Blind. At our request, he has consented to address a brief message to the blind people of the United States who will be using the talking book machines constructed under the Works Progress Administration. Mr. Hopkins.
Harry L. Hopkins: It is a privilege to have this opportunity to greet the blind people of America and to tell you how this Talking Book Machine, to which you are now listening, was made on a federal project operated by the Works Progress Administration, and sponsored by the Library of Congress, and supervised by the American Foundation for the blind. The machines are distributed free to blind readers, just like the books from the lending library, except that talking book machines actually read the books to use.
I would say, this is the most comfortable form of reading yet known to man and may well be envied by people who have perfectly good sight. But the copyright confines distribution of Talking Books for the blind only. You are the favored few who may sit quietly in your corner, turn a dial, Press the lever, and welcome into your darkness the world’s greatest literature. romance, adventure, travel, biography, mystery, poetry, religion, finding an exaltation you may never have found in any other way.
I only wish that we could place a talking book machine every home in the nation where there is a blind person. The appropriation for this particular project was sufficient to make 5,000 instruments. We employed 200 workers from relief rolls and paid them a security wage for their labors.
The project operates in New York City. And distribution of the finished talking book machines is made by the Library of Congress, in cooperation with the state Commission and state schools for the blind. Records for the talking book machines are available without charge in the Library of Congress in Washington and in the 27 regional talking book libraries for the blind, set up for the Library of Congress throughout the country. There are many fine records in this collection, which is maintained by an annual appropriation made by Congress. $75,000 was appropriated this year.
The catalog of talking book records is inspiring. It contains a comprehensive cross-section of the world’s best literature, all of which has been recorded by professional radio and stage artists, whose voices are clear and pleasing as they tell the tales of Charles Dickens, O. Henry, Bret Harte, or read sublime passages from the Bible, or the great poetry through the ages. An interesting library of contemporary fiction and non-fiction is also included in the collection.
The supply of machines for playing these talking book records has never been adequate to meet the many requests you have made for them. Although the American Foundation for the blind sells them without problem and in combination with the radio for less than $50, they cost more than many blind people can afford. Only 2,000 of them have been sold.
We are very glad to add the 5,000 manufactured on our Works Progress Administration project. The President’s grant for this federal project increases the talking books equipment in existence by 150%, thus, opening immeasurable opportunities to a great many more persons. So of the great variety of socially useful WPA projects, I feel justified in considering this one as outstanding, serving as it does a double benefit to the blind and to the project’s workers, all of whom were formally on the relief rolls.
There are a number of WPA projects of lasting benefit for the blind in different parts of the country. Books are being transcribed in the braille. Whole libraries are being repaired and reclassified. blind are being taught to read and write in braille.
In Indianapolis at the Indiana State School for the Blind we have a braille garden project. Which, as far as can be learned is the first in the United States. Every plant is being labeled with a braille label, giving the common and botanical names and the resume of the characteristics. All labels correspond with a special horticultural braille manual in use in the school. There is a circular Rose Garden and 18 beds containing hardy plants. A large Arboretum is being laid out.
At this same school, WPA workers have built a skating rink for blind children. It is graded like the Indianapolis Speedway so that children see it when the approach occurs. They often skate at night. There has never been an accident. Lions Club supplemented our work by purchasing 100 pair of skates, making it possible for every blind child in the school to use the rink for some time.
In the Michigan School for the Blind, WPA women workers have reclassified and repaired 6,750 volumes of braille, including a completely restored Bible of 37 volumes. On a Mississippi State wide project, 400 braille books have been made, most of the work being done by women breadwinners who were taken from relief rolls. I have mentioned only a few of the projects which are operating for the sightless under the Works Progress Administration. I wish we were carrying on a program many times the size of this.
It is gratifying to know that the WPA project for making talking book machines has been endorsed by Helen Keller, who calls it the greatest boon to the blind since the invention of the braille system 100 years ago, which made their education possible. She describes the new device as a great advance over the braille book because it can be read more rapidly and because it can be used by virtually every blind person. Now I want to quote a paragraph from a letter from a blind reader in Ohio to the American founders.
Gentlemen, even more than the seeing, the blind need the emotional compensation and intellectual stimulus of abundant reading if they are to believe sane, alert lives. Yet, until recently, independent reading was denied to most of them. Unless they could master an intricate embossed alphabet – and only 25% can – their vicarious living in the world of print was restricted by the devotion, convenience, and inclination of relatives and friends who read aloud to them.
Now the talking book has vanished its stifling dependence. In effect, it put the trained reader at the command of every blind person, voice fatigue, clashing tastes, and conflicts of available time no longer interfere. The blind person can read whenever, whatever, as long as he chooses.
In terms of human benefit, no other aid for the blind thus far developed offers so much.
In closing, I invite you to use the talking book machine fully and freely. It is President Roosevelt’s wish and ours that you receive endless enjoyment and educational advantage from them.
Speaker: Thank you, Mr. Hopkins. The blind people who receive the talking book machines deeply appreciate your interest in their problems. They will prize greatly this record of your voice made in the Talking Book Studio of the American Foundation for the Blind on March 14, 1936.