Perkins' pioneering work to promote literacy

From embossed type to downloadable digital books, Perkins has a long history of supporting literacy for people with blindness

A young boy sits at a desk with a Perkins Brailler. One hand is on the keys and the other hand reaches over to read the last line of braille on the page.

Perkins has always considered literacy a basic educational right, and has a long history of making books available to people who are blind, on campus and around New England.

June 30, 2016

As soon as embossed books became available in the 1830s, Samuel Gridley Howe made sure they were placed where students at Perkins School for the Blind could read them. In an era when it was commonly thought that individuals who were blind did not need to be literate because others could read to them, Perkins’ first director understood the necessity of being able to read for oneself, and considered literacy an educational right.

Dismayed by the scarcity of embossed books, Howe decided to create them himself and began soliciting donations to subsidize the cost of publishing textbooks for students who were blind. Though his printing press only produced a handful of titles each year, Howe aspired to provide readers throughout the world with “books of all kinds, religious, moral, and scientific, as well as works of diversion.”

By 1885, Perkins had expanded its lending library, mailing books to readers who were blind throughout New England. Within five years, nearly 400 volumes were being sent to individuals outside Perkins. Early embossed books used Boston Line Type, a stylized version of the standard alphabet that Howe invented. By the late 1800s, it was being replaced by braille, which was growing in popularity.

Howe believed literacy was a national issue. As early as 1836, he called on Congress to establish a national lending library service for readers who were blind. However, it would be 73 years before Congress took action to make books more available to people who were blind – establishing the first Free Matter for the Blind mailing program. That made it possible for Perkins to mail embossed books free of charge to the homes of people who were blind.

In 1931, an Act of Congress established the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), which greatly expanded the number and availability of embossed, and later, audio books.

Today, Perkins’ original library has four descendants: the Secondary Program Library for students, the Samuel P. Hayes Research Library and Perkins Archives for educators and researchers, and the Perkins Library, an NLS Regional Library with an annual circulation of over 540,000 audio, braille and large print books, as well as popular magazines and described DVDs.

As technology advanced, the Perkins Library introduced another reading option – downloadable audio books. They came in 2013, courtesy of the NLS’s mobile app for its Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) program. This free app allowed registered Perkins Library patrons to search for and download audio and braille books and magazines to their iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. By 2015, Perkins Library patrons were downloading more than 64,000 digital books annually.

Thanks to Director Howe’s pioneering work, anyone in New England who is unable to read print materials can stay connected to literature and learning through the Perkins Library. That includes people who are blind, as well as people with a print disability or a physical impairment that prevents them from reading standard print.

With a myriad of reading options to choose from, the Perkins Library opens up the world of books, and a world of possibility, to almost 29,000 people every year in New England and beyond.

For more information about the history of Perkins School for the Blind, sign up for the Perkins Archives’ newsletter.