Touch This Page! Making Sense of the Ways We Read

An exhibition on multisensory experiences of reading

A woman with visual impairment explores the Touch this Page exhibition.

The Touch this Page exhibit display is being explored by a visitor with a visual impairment. She is touching a bright pink 3-D printed sample of text taken from the New Testament printed in 1836.

April 17, 2019

Almost three years ago the Perkins Archives was approached with the idea of using 3-D printing technology to create an exhibit that would highlight early embossed printing systems found in the Perkins Archives, primarily Samuel Gridley Howe’s Boston Line Type. Not only would the exhibit allow visitors to learn about and touch printed surrogates of the tactile text, but they would also be able to download and print it themselves, essentially making the exhibit available to anyone with access to a 3-D printer. What developed was a collaboration with the Harvard University and Northeastern University that has, so far, culminated in an online Touch This Page exhibit with downloadable files of the objects, “pop-up style” exhibitions at four institutions in the Boston area, and a two-day symposium. It has also provided a platform to highlight the benefits of inter-institutional collaboration itself.

Perkins provided all but one of the embossed books used for this exhibit. They represent some of our earliest examples of Boston Line Type, but also include a map of Massachusetts, a diagram of an eclipse of the moon, and tactile snowflakes. Harvard University has scanning technology that was able to provide images that Northeastern University’s Enabling Engineering student organization could make into printable files. Enabling Engineering undertakes design problems with physical and cognitive accessibility in mind.  After getting feedback on early samples at the Perkins Library, and then refining, Enabling Engineering was able to make 3-D printed copies of diagrams and text from some of Perkins’ earliest embossed books. These brightly colored objects were placed in specially designed stands that provided hidden or wide open access to the objects. Accounts from those reading embossed texts at the time provide first-hand experiences alongside the larger exhibit narrative of sensory experience and access.

Project leaders Sari Altschuler (Northeastern University) and David Weimer (Harvard Library), hope that interaction with the 3D-printed objects will provoke visitors to think about how all of our senses contribute to the experience of reading. The exhibit is also designed to guide visitors through issues regarding  barriers to access and does so by reflecting on what is now referred to as “universal design.” The exhibit notes that Perkins founding directory, Samuel Gridley Howe believed that Boston Line Type was superior to braille because it could be read by those with blindness and with sight, thus not further isolating this population from mainstream society. This belief and the success of Boston Line Type helped hinder the use of braille in the United States and at Perkins. Louis Braille proposed the system he developed in 1829. It wasn’t until 1932 that standard English braille was adopted in the United States.