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AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

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AFB Talking Book Archives

Collection Summary

Creator: American Foundation for the Blind
Title: Talking Book Archives
Bulk Dates: 1930 - 1960
Quantity: Fifteen cubic feet of processed materials are contained in 18 manuscript boxes, 12 horizontal drop-front boxes, 1 bully box, 6 phonograph boxes and 1 artifact box.
Abstract: Correspondence, legal, administrative and technical documents, press clippings, photographs, phonographs, index cards and audio equipment, documenting the American Foundation for the Blind's (AFB) collaboration with the Library of Congress and blindness organizations to create and develop the Talking Book record and the Talking Book machine circa 1930-1960.

Administrative Information

Provenance: The Talking Book Archives is comprised of materials generated by the American Foundation for the Blind during the creation and production of the Talking book. The materials that make up the collection were culled from a variety of sources within AFB.
Access The Talking Book Archives are open for research by appointment to qualified scholars and researchers. Please contact the Information Center for guidelines: American Foundation for the Blind, 11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300, New York, NY 10001. Telephone 212 502-7661.
Preferred Citation: Please use the following citation: "Courtesy of the American Foundation for the Blind, Talking Book Archives." Please contact AFB for permission to publish material from the Talking Book Archives.
Accruals: Donations are periodically accessioned into the collection.
Related Material: Other repositories housing materials about the history of Talking Books include the James Madison Library and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, both part of the Library of Congress, Washington DC.

Access Points

Persons: Clapp, Verner W. (Verner Warren), 1901-1972
Dyer, Frank Lewis, 1870-1941
Goldmark, Peter C.
Irwin, Robert Benjamin, 1883-1951
Keller, Helen, 1880-1968
Keller, Kent, 1867-1954
LeGallienne, Eva, 1899-1991
MacLeish, Archibald, 1892-1982
Meyer, Herman H. B. (Herman Henry Bernard), 1864-1937
Mumford, L. Quincy (Lawrence Quincy), 1903-1982
O'Day, Caroline, 1875-1943
Patterson, Donald G. (Donald Gillis), 1901-1986
Pratt, Ruth, 1877-1965
Putnam, Herbert, 1861-1955
Roberts, Martin Arnold, 1875-1940
Roosevelt, Franklin D., 1882-1945
Sarnoff, David, 1891-1971
Scourby, Alexander, 1913-1985
Ziemer, Gregor, 1899-1982
Subjects: American history
Disability, human rights and society
Disability studies
Legislation -- United States -- History
Phonograph needles
Phonograph turntables
Publishers and publishing -- United States
Sound recordings
Talking Book machines
Talking Book Project
Talking Books
Places: New York, NY
Washington DC
Organizations: American Foundation for the Blind
American Printing House for the Blind
Library of Congress
RCA-Victor Company
Western Electric Company
Works Progress Administration
Types of material: clippings
phonograph records
sound recordings

Scope and Content

The Talking Book Archives span the years 1891-1996, with the bulk of the materials dating from 1930-1960. The collection is comprised of correspondence (predominantly typed), memoranda, reports, press clippings, index cards, photographs, phonographs, and some audio equipment. Fifteen cubic feet of material are contained in 18 manuscript boxes, 12 horizontal drop-front boxes, 1 bully box, 6 phonograph boxes, and 1 artifact box. The materials are in good condition. Items considered important were placed in mylar. Press clippings have been copied onto acid-free paper.

The Talking Book Archives document the creation and development of the Talking Book record and the Talking Book machine in the United States, circa 1930-1960. The documents shed light on the history of blindness, sound and recording technology, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Depression era of the 1930s, as well as American philanthropy, media, arts, and popular culture. The collection describes the pivotal technical and logistical work that took place beginning in the 1930s to mass produce a 12" 33 1/3 rpm disc that could run for longer than the traditional 3 to 5 minutes per side of a 78rpm disc and to design and manufacture a machine on which to play these records on.

The man at the center of this effort was Robert B. Irwin, Executive Director of the American Foundation for the Blind from 1929 to 1948. Irwin's correspondence sheds light on the close collaboration between AFB and the Library of Congress to realize the Talking Book. Within these files, one reads about Irwin's stubborn determination to provide employment for visually impaired men and women during the depression when work was hard to come by, and the resounding success of the project as a Works Progress Administration program. The researcher is also provided with materials that document, among other things, AFB's early collaboration with recording companies such as RCA Victor; the efforts undertaken by AFB and the American Printing House for the Blind to secure scarce raw materials to manufacture talking books during the war years and information on the production and distribution of the wide range of titles recorded from the early 1930s until the 1960s by AFB and APH.

The collection is organized as follows: Series 1: Legal (subseries: patent, contracts, copyright); Series 2: Legislation (subseries: correspondence, government reprints); Series 3: Administration (subseries: fundraising, publicity); Series 4: Research Development (subseries: Library of Congress, RCA Victor Company, American Printing House for the Blind, Works Progress Admninistration, Miscellaneous); Series 5: Narrator Index Cards; Series 6: Photographic Prints (subseries: Agency/Library, Distribution, Events, Individuals, Manufacturing, Recording Studio, Records, Listeners); Series 7: Phonographs; Series 8: Audio Recording.

Main correspondents within the collection are: M. C. Migel, AFB President (1924-1944) and M. Robert Barnett, AFB Executive Director (1949-1974); Librarians of Congress: Herbert Putnam (1899-1939) and Archibald MacLeish (1939-1944); National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Directors: Herman H. B. Meyer (1931-1935) and Martin A. Roberts (1935 -1940). Other correspondents include A. C. Ellis, Superintendent, American Printing House for the Blind, David Sarnoff, President, RCA Victor and Peter C. Goldmark of Columbia Broadcasting System. The collection also includes correspondence to and from Frank L. Dyer, the original inventor of the Talking Book record.

Series Description

Series 1: Legal

This series contains patents, agreements and copyright permissions for Talking Books. These include licensing correspondence with Frank L. Dyer, the inventor of the 12" 33 1/3 rpm phonograph disc as well as contracts with the Author's League, and the National Association of Book Publishers, permitting non-profit organizations to record Talking Books solely for the use of the blind, without a royalty fee.

Series 2: Legislation

This series provides a fascinating glimpse of the work of a non-profit organization's efforts to raise federal government funds over a span of over 40 years (1930-1973); and to secure progressively larger appropriations from the federal government for literature for the blind in both braille and sound recording formats. Correspondents include Congresswomen Ruth Pratt and Caroline O'Day; Congressmen Joe Crail, Fred Biermann, Matthew A. Dunn, and Kent E. Keller; and Senators Reed Smoot and Jesse H. Metcalf. The tenor of the age is clearly felt in two folders from January 1937. In them, Robert B. Irwin corresponds to blindness organizations and individuals across the nation, encouraging letters of solicitation to Congressman Kent Keller in support of H. R. 168 demanding an increase of $100,000 in appropriations for Talking Books for the blind. The individual responses reflect how important these records were to the blind during the Depression (Box 3, Folder 3).

Series 3: Administration

These materials describe AFB's Talking Book Campaign; primarily a fundraising effort, the work involved promoting awareness of the Talking Book to grass roots organizations and the blind community in order to secure the purchase and distribution of Talking Book reading machines around the country. Documents include reports from AFB field representatives on demonstrations of the new invention. In particular, correspondence between Robert B. Irwin and AFB field representatives Anna E. Caldwell and Gordon Lathrop (1932-1935) provides excellent information on the early efforts to promote the Talking Book. Correspondence with Lathrop discusses the activities of a design competitor, J. R. Atkinson. Caldwell's correspondence describes demonstrating the machine to blindness organizations, Lions Clubs and state commissions for the blind. Irwin guides Caldwell to various possible clients and contacts, including politically influential persons.

This series also includes publicity generated by the American Foundation for the Blind from the 1930s to the 1970s. These are mainly press clippings and press releases. Another group of materials within this series is correspondence from the general public both criticizing and praising Talking Book narrators and their recordings. Two folders contain correspondence to (and occassionally from) Alexander Scourby, a longtime Talking Book narrator.

Series 4: Research and Development

This series is the largest series in the collection. It contains the following six sub-series: 1) Library of Congress, 2) RCA Victor Company, 3) American Printing House for the Blind, 4) Works Progress Administration, 5) Miscellaneous.

Sub-series 1: Library of Congress

Seventeen folders spanning the years 1931 to 1961, detail the collaboration between AFB and the Library of Congress to design and produce the Talking Book record; and fifteen folders, spanning the years 1933 to 1957, discuss the manufacture of the Talking Book machine. Items dating from the war period are particularly interesting. For example, a letter from Robert B. Irwin at the American Foundation for the Blind, to Joseph P. Blickensderfer, Director, Books for the Adult Blind, at the Library of Congress, explains that non-hospitalized (blinded) servicemen will receive machines first and the remaining machines will be sent to their hospitalized counterparts as replacements, 9/7/1945 (Box 12, Folder 1).

Documents from the post-war era appear to indicate that AFB's role diminished in the production of Talking Book machines, but the organization continued to act as a consultant to the Library of Congress for the production of Talking Book machines by commercial manufacturers. One such document from January 1955,Contract for Research and Development in Sound Reproduction,, summarizes much of the work undertaken at this time by AFB.(Box 12, Folder 4).

Sub-series 2: RCA Victor Company

Subseries 2 spans from 1931 to 1947 and includes interesting correspondence surrounding the production of Talking Book records prior to AFB's work with the Library of Congress (i.e. 1931-1934). The materials provide an excellent window into the cooperation of a non-profit organization with a commercial technology company. The former shipped wax masters to RCA, who then manufactured test pressings out of victrolac and shipped them back to AFB. The correspondence details the receipt of damaged masters by RCA from AFB and the problems and issues surrounding RCA's test pressings, including: excessive surface noise as a result of distorted channels/grooves, melting, remoulding, drilling waxes, cracked discs. The documents also discuss the efforts to lower unit costs of manufacturing Talking Books and RCA's creation of braille record labels. Other items of interest include arrangements for representatives from RCA Victor, Western Electric and Columbia University to test a West Coast Talking Book machine that uses the constant linear velocity technology, 5/24/1934 (Box 13, Folder 7).

Sub-series 3: American Printing House for the Blind

Subseries 3 details the intimate relationship between AFB and the American Printing House for the Blind. The materials give a first hand account of the political, financial and administrative collaboration between these two blindness organizations in the research and development of the Talking Book during the Depression, World War II and the post-war era. The two main correspondents to emerge from the documents are Robert B. Irwin (AFB) and A. C. Ellis (Superintendent, APH). Their correspondence spans from 1934 until 1947 when Ellis died unexpectedly.

The documents detail the daily efforts of the Talking Book project and communicate the energy and excitement that the project generated. Correspondence details the creation of a phonograph department at APH with the cooperation of Electrical Research Products, Inc. and the vinylite division of Union Carbide, 2/16/1937 (Box 14, Folder 5); as well as the sharing of raw materials (for wax mouldings) and each organization's selection of titles from the list supplied by the Library of Congress.

Much detail is provided of the work involved to record an enormous array of materials that could be used by schools for the blind, including American folk songs, sounds of daily life, the natural world, and recordings of famous literary works. Examples include President Franklin D. Roosevelt's message to Congress of December 8, 1941; bird series, prepared by The Department of Ornithology of Cornell University; a People at Work series, produced by Columbia Broadcasting System; and a Guides to Symphonies by educator Berthold Lowenfeld.

This subseries also provides insight into the unique problems presented by the Second World War such as the growing shortage of workers, as a result of men drafted into the army and the scarcity of raw materials such as vinylite and copper. One can read about the enormous efforts that Irwin and Ellis exerted to secure funding for the millions of needles that were needed to play the Talking Book records, as these wore out very rapidly.

Sub-series 4: Works Progress Administration

Correspondence, reports, forms and memoranda that are rich in information document this AFB-led project. The bulk of the materials date from 1936 to 1939 and revolve around applications to the Federal government for funding and the employment of relief and non-relief workers both blind and sighted. These applications and reports include salaries and statistics on the numbers of blind workers employed on the project. A particularly informative report by Robert B. Irwin Works Progress Administration Talking Book Project 1/30/1937 provides an interesting description of the workplace. Irwin proudly details tasks requiring manual dexterity that are performed by blind workers. Another set of interesting documents are internal AFB memoranda that discuss frustration with the WPA on how best to run the project.

Sub-series 5: Miscellaneous

This subseries contains studies and reports on the benefits of educational recordings for blind children, including reports by Berthold Lowenfeld (1938-1948). The other group of documents are internal AFB reports spanning from 1932 - 1950 (the bulk are weekly reports from 1936-1940). These provide information on both record and machine production. Information includes titles that were recorded and readers narrating those titles as well as the models that were manufactured and shipped.

Series 5: Narrator Index Cards

This series is a box of 5" x 7" index cards that list over 600 narrators and the titles and dates of the recordings they made between 1937-1985.

Series 6: Photographic Prints

Over 200 images are contained in this series. Materials include black and white prints (mainly 8" x 10"), contact sheets and negatives. The series contains the following 8 subseries: Agency/Library; Distribution; Events; Individuals; Manufacturing; Recording Studio; Records; Listeners. Images of particular interest include manufacturing and testing Talking Book machines at AFB in the early 1930s; famous people recording book titles including Alexander Scourby, Maya Angelou, Tony Randall, Harry Truman and Sybil Thorndike; images from the 25th anniversary of the Talking Book featuring Phil Silvers and Jack Carson; shots from the 1951 Library of Congress Conference in Washington DC.

Series 7: Phonographs

Over 150 Talking Book records are contained in this series. The bulk of these are 12" 33 1/3rpm discs. These span from approximately 1937 to 1975 and include discs with the label Isabelle Archer Dyer Memorial Record. This was the credit line required by Frank L. Dyer who gave AFB the license to manufacture the records. A Talking Book frequently required multiple discs and in many instances these are missing from the collection.

Titles of particular interest include: Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, read by Alexander Scourby with an introduction by Mann (missing); Anna Christie by Eugene O'Neill, dramatized with cast, no date; Our Town by Thornton Wilder with a dramatized cast, circa 1938; Books read by Eva LeGallienne include The Birthday of the Infanta and The Nightingale and the Rose in 1939 and The Happy Prince in 1943, all by Oscar Wilde; His Last Bow by A. C. Doyle and read by Christopher Morley, 1944; Un Coeur Simple by Gustave Flaubert, read by Robert Franc and Alexander Scourby, 1946; The Book of Psalms, read by Alexander Scourby for the American Bible Society, 1947; Old Herbaceous by Reginald Arkell, read by Noel Leslie, 1951; Platero Y Yo by Juan Ramon Jimenez, read by Emilio de Torre, 1955

Other titles of interest are Charles Helms, 25th Anniversary Party at AFB, 1959; Alexander Scourby reading This Is Our Story, (AFB), 1959 and various Talking Book Topics and discs with information for the blind, circa 1947 - 1975. The collection also contains a 7" sonograph recording of The Pearl by John Steinbeck, narrated by Alexander Scourby, circa 1949

Series 8: Audio Equipment/Devices

Two artifacts make up this series: a stylus (date?) and a Talking Book machine (date?)