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  AFB Talking Book Exhibit

Blind worker tests a Talking Book machine before it is sent out, circa 1937.

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MP3 Audio of Talking Book Topic 

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Operations Begin
A Works Progress Administration Project

The manufacture of machines began in December 1935 at the WPA's workshop at 475 Tenth Avenue in Manhattan. AFB manufactured and distributed Talking Book machines under a WPA contract on behalf of the Library of Congress until June 1942. At a time of soaring unemployment, AFB's Talking Book program succeeded in securing jobs for people with vision loss. This was in large measure due to the determination of AFB's Executive Director, Robert B. Irwin, who constantly cajoled and solicited the WPA to retain workers who were disabled. In January 1937, Robert B. Irwin wrote the following in a report about the Talking Book program:

If Portia could step from Shakespeare's pages into the Works Progress Administration's workshop at 475 Tenth Avenue, New York City, which makes the electric reading machines for the Talking Books for the blind, she would discover that more than the quality of mercy was twice-blessed. She would find there forty sightless citizens, taken off relief, busily and happily employed along with 160 sighted workers, in the manufacture of these special phonographs, devised to bring a new interest and a new zest to the lives of their fellow blind throughout the country. The employment gives these blind workers both self-respect and a sense of independence; the machines they make open up to the nation's needy blind the inspiration and the entertainment of over a hundred worthwhile books ...

Irwin continues to explain how workers who are blind came to be employed in assembling machines:

... One part of the assembly work called for adjustment of a diminutive screw. This could be done only by hand. One man after another felt sure that he could do it, and yet one man after another found his fingers all thumbs when he tired to manipulate the tiny part. It then occured to Mr. Kleber ... that many who are without sight come to develop an unusual sense of touch. He called in a blind man from the relief rolls, and - "Presto!" - the sensitive fingers went at once to work ...

This page includes an audio clip from the first Talking Book Topic audio recording in March 1939.


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The Library of Congress hires the American Foundation for the Blind
A Works Progress Administration Project
The American Printing House for the Blind
More than 23,000 WPA Machines Built


AFB Talking Book Galleries:
Early History
Early History
Partnerships
Partnerships
Helen Keller
Helen Keller
Operations Begin
Operations Begin
Technology
Technology
Narrators
Narrators

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75 Years of AFB and Talking Books

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