Archives Management Internship: Processing the Helen Keller Embossed Book Collection

Sample braille page.
July 21, 2015

Today is my last day as an intern for the Perkins School for the Blind’s archive. This internship was a required part of an introductory class on archives management at Simmons School of Library and Information Science. During the course of the internship I was required to complete a project, and the project that I was assigned was to create a finding aid for the collection of embossed books and manuscripts donated to Perkins by Helen Keller. 

One of the best parts of this project was getting to learn more about Helen Keller through what she read. I did not have much background knowledge of Keller before I started here, other than the story that we all learned in middle school and that scene from The Miracle Workerwhere Anne Sullivan signs “water” into Helen Keller’s hand as she holds it under a running faucet. What I learned was that Keller obviously loved to read, and from what I hear about her correspondence collections, she also loved to write. Some books lend insight into Keller’s intelligence, for instance she read in at least four different languages as represented by the collection, including Latin, but more than that, she could read in at least four different writing systems. Though I was not able to find the book, there is evidence that Keller owned a volume in Moon Type, she had one in a system of raised letters, and she could read American Braille as well as English Braille (and French, German, and Latin, which follow the same pattern as English). When I first started here I decided that I would learn Braille as part of my own personal goals for my time in the archive, and while I can now read grade 1 English Braille, I can’t imagine keeping it straight from American Braille without having a key readily available, let alone learning Moon Type, and trying to decipher Line Type with just my fingertips. 

Handwritten note on inside page: Received from Helen Keller June, 1915.

Handwritten note on inside page: Received from Helen Keller June, 1915.

My favorite part of the collection are the novels, especially the romantic ones, because I think it shows another side to Keller other than a pioneer of deafblind education, social justice advocate, and writer. Some of my favorites are; Persuasion by Jane Austen, The Fair Maiden of Perth by Sir Walter Scott, The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare, and Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth. Among the novels are several biographies of European Monarchs, like Sixty Years a Queen by Sir Herbert Maxwell and The Little Duke by Charlotte Yonge. A pessimist could argue that Keller’s propensity for fiction and biography shows a need for escapism from her own life, but I prefer to think of her as a curious, voracious reader, who wanted to immerse herself in stories of lives different from her own, not because she wanted to escape, but because she was like me, like any reader of fiction, wanting to experience something through a book that could not be experienced in the real world. 

Overall, I have felt very lucky to be given this opportunity to learn more about Helen Keller as I experienced working in an archive for the first time; I cannot imagine a project that would have grabbed my interest more.

For the complete list of books please see the finding aid.