New Perkins exhibition uses 3D printing to 'make sense of the ways we read'

“Touch this Page” teaches a modern lesson using 19th century literacy tools

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

"Touch this Page" enables sighted and non-sighted visitors alike to experience some of the earliest reading adaptations developed for people with visual impairment.

February 27, 2019

Perkins School for the Blind is co-hosting an exhibition about multisensory reading experiences to showcase how the written word has historically been made more accessible to people with vision loss.

Hosted in collaboration with the Boston Public Library, Harvard and Northeastern Universities, the exhibit – titled “Touch this Page! Making Sense of the Ways We Read” – primarily features 3D-printed replicas of historic accessible books from Perkins’ own archives.

The project is designed to give sighted and non-sighted visitors alike the opportunity to gain a first-hand understanding of some of the earliest adaptations used to help people with visual impairments read.

“These 19th century tactile forms return contemporary readers to the early history of accessible print,” said Sari Altschuler, associate director of Northeastern’s Humanities Center and one of the exhibit co-directors.

Added Dave Weimer, the other exhibit co-director and a librarian for Cartographic Collections and Learning at the Harvard Map Collection, “By experiencing these forms with only their hands, exhibit-goers will confront the difficulties of reading these tactile forms while also learning of the determination and success of the many students who mastered them.”

“Touch this Page” will specifically introduce visitors to a number of embossed lettering systems, including Moon Type and, most notably, Boston Line Type, a raised alphabet created by Perkins’ founder Samuel Gridley Howe.

“The history of embossed systems of writing for people with blindness and visual impairment highlights a wide range of approaches and philosophies,” said Jen Hale, archivist at Perkins. “With the exception of braille – a far superior system and, tellingly, one designed by someone who was blind himself – most people haven’t heard of many of them.”

The prints though, originally published between 1830 and 1910, do more than take audiences on a tour through history. Harvard and Northeastern plan to pair their showcases with symposiums designed to explore broader issues of disability and accessibility on April 4th and 5th respectively. Organizers also hope people with access to 3D printers will download, print and host exhibits of their own to further echo the importance of accessibility as it relates to literacy.

“Since this exhibit exists physically but travels digitally, we intend it also to experiment with new forms of access,” added Altshuler. “In short, this exhibit aims to break exciting new ground in disability studies, digital humanities and public history.”

For those without 3D printers, the exhibition is viewable now through mid-April at the Boston Public Library, Harvard, Northeastern and Perkins. Viewings at Perkins are by appointment only. Contact Archives@Perkins.org for more information. For further dissemination, it can be downloaded and printed from the “Touch this Page” website.