The Unseen Minority: A Social History of Blindness in the United States
11. The Beloved Voices
A major factor in the Talking Book's instant popularity was care in selecting the voices it reproduced. The winning formula was in the decision that actors could do a better job in bringing a book to life than such other public speakers as teachers (too pedantic), ministers (too preachy) or radio commercial announcers (too much "hard sell"). In the Thirties, heyday of soap opera, there were actors galore who were comfortable with a microphone, experienced in conveying characterization by voice alone and—the economy being what it was—glad to have a supplementary source of earnings even at the modest fees offered for Talking Book work. These were $5 a finished "page" (one side of a 15- or 20-minute record). Unlike the erasable magnetic tape later used in making master recordings, early masters were made on wax that could not be corrected. A mistake meant doing the whole side over again.
"This thing of recording a book is a tricky job," Robert Irwin observed in writing to a friend in January 1933. "It is quite a strain on a man to read for 20 minutes without mispronouncing a single word or placing the emphasis in the wrong place."
It was indeed a strain, especially in the first studio, a primitive eight-foot cubicle totally enclosed and sealed off from noise (and, simultaneously, from air). Alexander Woollcott, one of the first of the authors who recorded their own works on Talking Books, found the confinement so nervewracking that he had to have someone sit beside him as he read While Rome Burns. (Once the Foundation moved into its own building, its recording booths were professionally built and ventilated.)
Ethel Everett, who began recording Talking Books in 1935, was present on the occasion, in 1938, when the entire Talking Book management shared a state of alarm. Eleanor Roosevelt had agreed to record the first chapter of her book, This Is My Story, with Miss Everett doing the rest. There were reporters, photographers and newsreel cameramen on hand. When the appointed hour came and Mrs. Roosevelt had not arrived, an embarrassing fiasco loomed. A hasty phone call was made to the White House. Mrs. Roosevelt was not in Washington, she was in her New York apartment, then located on Washington Square. A call there was answered by an astonished Eleanor; the appointment had been wrongly entered in her date book for the following day. Told of the circumstances, she dropped what she was doing and, ten minutes later, the F.B.I. men stationed on the Foundation's roof were relieved to see her striding along 16th Street. Apologetic but unflustered, she posed for the necessary pictures and then went on to perform her role in what might be considered a tiny footnote to history: the first Talking Book recording to be made by a resident of the White House. In later years, the same footnote might add, Talking Books were introduced by ex-Presidents Herbert Hoover (The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson) and Harry S. Truman (Years of Decision).
That they could hear the voices of famous personages may not have made a great difference to the blind people who hungrily awaited each new Talking Book, but it carried prestige in other quarters. One of the reasons the Library of Congress gave for its reluctance to award the recording contracts to commercial firms was that only a non-profit organization could attract the unpaid services of eminent personalities.
The range of eminence was wide. In the first decade, Talking Book subscribers heard such voices as those of the deep-sea explorer William Beebe (Half Mile Down), the poet Stephen Vincent Benét (John Brown's Body), the novelist Edna Ferber (A Peculiar Treasure), the English authors W. Somerset Maugham (Of Human Bondage) and Jan Struther (Mrs. Miniver), the German novelist Thomas Mann (Buddenbrooks). In later years the list grew to include the foreign correspondent William Shirer (Berlin Diary), the political leader Wendell Willkie (One World), the sportswriters John Kieran (Nature Notes) and Red Barber (Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat), the literary critic Clifton Fadiman (Reading I've Liked), the playwright and historian Robert E. Sherwood (Roosevelt and Hopkins), the philosopher Bertrand Russell (Freedom vs. Organization) as well as such popular novelists and writers as Christopher Morley, Glenway Westcott, Eric Knight, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Emily Kimbrough, Bel Kaufman, Leo Rosten, Piri Thomas, Archibald MacLeish, Ogden Nash, Nat Hentoff.
Equally impressive were the stars of stage, screen, radio, and television who lent their talents to recording literature for blind readers. Some served as occasional narrators: Eva LeGallienne, Otis Skinner, Walter Hampden, Dame Sybil Thorndike, Alfred Drake, Jose Ferrer, Blanche Yurka, Zachary Scott, Jessica Tandy, Tom Ewell, Donald Madden, Brian Aherne, Patricia Collinge, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Mildred Dunnock, Kevin McCarthy, Roddy McDowall, Sheppard Strudwick, Peggy Wood. Some recorded their own autobiographies: Joan Crawford, Ilka Chase, Victor Borge, Ruth Gordon, Pearl Bailey. Still others acted roles in the recorded plays the Talking Book studios ambitiously undertook in the early years. "Ambitiously" is perhaps too mild a term, given the circumstances. The only member of the Foundation studio staff with any theatrical experience was William Barbour, who had played a few bit roles on Broadway. Barbour, a boyhood friend of J.O. Kleber, was in charge of the artistic end of the studio. His principal assistant, who served as the recording monitor, was a pretty blind girl named Jane Muhlfeld who later became Mrs. Barbour.
Their system for choosing Talking Book narrators was to have the candidate make a 15-minute test recording of a short story or group of poems. On such occasions the microphone was wired to two outlets. One was in the control room where Kleber could simultaneously regulate the recording apparatus and listen to the reading. The other was in a separate room where the recording was heard by Barbour, Miss Muhlfeld and—in almost every case—by Robert Irwin as well. The candidate's suitability was determined by vote, the only flaw in this democratic procedure being that veto power was reserved to Irwin.
The extraordinary thing was how well this amateurish casting system worked. The monitors were not easy to please. A report issued a decade after the Talking Book program began said: "we have auditioned literally hundreds of professional actors [and] have found less than ten readers who combine the qualities of educational background, voice, accuracy and stamina essential for this work." That the selection system was not perfect was revealed some fifteen years after the event when a staff member, looking through the audition records of early Talking Book candidates, came across a card with this notation: "Damn nice fellow. Pretty good reader. Might try out when we get some books." The name on the card: Gregory Peck.
The names and voices featured on Foundation-produced Talking Books in later years were well known to fans of television, radio, films, and the stage: Leon Janney, Arnold Moss, Guy Sorel, Kermit Murdock, Staats Cotsworth, George Rose, Norman Rose, Harold Scott, Eugenia Rawls. A comparable group recorded Talking Books for the Printing House. These professionals "give to the works they present a sparkle and vivacity which must be heard to be believed," their ultimate boss, the head of the Library of Congress' Division for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, testified.
What was their motivation? While the 1972 fee of $30 per recorded hour was far more respectable than the original pittance, it was still considerably less than what these same performers commanded for other professional assignments. Alexander Scourby spoke for them all when he told an audience at an American Library Association convention that no work he ever did gave him greater gratification. The Talking Book, he said, was the one activity he would never give up "as long as I can speak and as long as I am acceptable to the Foundation and to the people who get the books [and] as long as I can stand on my feet and get to the studio."
John Knight, who narrated the very first Talking Book, left his tribute to the program in the form of a bequest to the Library of Congress. The funds left by the actor, who died in 1964, were used in 1971 to construct a new tape recording studio at the headquarters of the Library's Division for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
The most treasured rewards of all for those who recorded Talking Books were the letters they received from listeners. A Baltimore minister wrote to Scourby:
The recipients of such fan letters usually acknowledged them; sometimes this led to a prolonged correspondence. A girl student at the Texas School for the Blind wound up a two-year exchange of letters with Buckley Kozlow by inviting him to attend her wedding. Ethel Everett was the recipient, over the years, of so many poems written to and for her by a blind lawyer that she collected them in an album.
Listener responses were often augmented by letters from the authors of recorded books. The Talking Book version of Dean Acheson's memoirs, Present at the Creation, brought to Alan Hewitt, who recorded it, this note from the former United States Secretary of State:
The Library of Congress received its share of grateful mail from blind readers and, on occasion, quoted from such letters in its annual reports. "It is the first time I have celebrated Christmas in October," one Talking Book subscriber wrote on receipt of some welcome new records. An even more concrete expression of appreciation came when a blind man bequeathed his modest home to the Library for use in furthering its work for the blind. The property of Nymphus Corridon Hanks of Heber City, Utah, added a little over $5,000 to the Library's trust funds.
Now and again, listeners had criticisms to offer. Some found women's voices hard to take. Others objected to British accents. A letter from the regional library for the blind in Utah had this to say:
With new Talking Book titles being issued in the Seventies at the rate of 700 and 800 a year, such prejudices could be indulged. It was different in the early days, when only 40 or 50 new titles came out each year. Then the arrival of a new Talking Book was an occasion for pure rejoicing. Particularly well received were the full-cast recorded plays which, as The New York Times noted in December 1937, gave blind readers "an advantage over their seeing neighbors if they live in the many communities to which the spoken drama no longer comes."
Like many another a little theater group, the Foundation's studio got into play productions with Shakespeare. The small acting company assembled under a professional director, H. Lyle Winter, then moved into contemporary drama, beginning in 1935 with R.C. Sherriff's anti-war play, Journey's End, and going on, in succeeding years, to Maxwell Anderson's Mary of Scotland, Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, A.A. Milne's Mr. Pim Passes By, John Galsworthy's The Silver Box, and other stage hits of the time.
The original theatrical group included some actors who had already achieved recognition on the stage and others who were on their way. In addition to Alexander Scourby and Ethel Everett, there were such regulars as Wesley Addy, Lloyd Bridges, and Peggy Converse and such guest stars as Bert Lytell, Mady Christians, Grace Menken, Whitford Kane, Selena Royle. The regional libraries for the blind had a hard time keeping up with the demand for these recorded dramas. "Whereas the printed play has never caused much of a stir in either libraries or book shops, the spoken play on the Talking Book discs is always in circulation," the Outlook reported in 1942. During the fifteen-year span between the launching of the Talking Book and the advent of commercial LPs, only blind people could sit in their homes and be mentally transported to the theater by means of a slowly revolving disc.
Not even the most glorious of voices would have endeared the Talking Book to its listeners if the material transmitted by those voices had been boring. The early years saw a more or less constant tug of war between the Foundation and the Library of Congress, the former plumping for up-to-the-minute popular literature, the latter holding to the belief that it could properly sponsor only established classics or books of high literary value that gave promise of turning into classics. In the course of time, the Library gradually relaxed its literary purism, influenced in part by repeated urgings from the regional librarians, who knew at first hand what blind readers wanted, and by letters from the readers themselves. What ultimately tipped the scale, however, was the emergence of a new generation of Library leadership.
There is possibly some significance in the fact that the idea of serving blind readers did not originate with a Librarian of Congress, but with his wife. Soon after John Russell Young was sworn into the post in 1897, he proposed, at his wife's behest, "that some special accommodation should be made for the blind." It would not involve much extra effort. "Under the operations of the copyright law, we must have on our shelves a large number of publications especially printed for the blind. These might be kept together and attendants deputed to give them special care."
Examination of the Library's stock revealed a collection of about a hundred titles in raised letters; these were soon augmented by an equal number from various schools for the blind, and on November 4, 1897, the Reading Room for the Blind was opened in a corner of the basement of the Library of Congress. Some seventy blind persons living nearby were invited to make use of the new facility. To attract them, Mrs. Young organized a reading hour when volunteers, "ladies and gentlemen of Washington," took turns reading aloud from books not available in tactile print.
This was the origin of what was later called the Regional Library for the Blind in the Library of Congress and is today the National Collections for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Operated under the overall Division for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, it functions in a dual capacity: first, like the other regional libraries, as a service for blind readers in its assigned area, and second, as a back-up national repository on which other regional libraries may draw as needed.
In 1899 Young was succeeded as Librarian of Congress by Herbert Putnam, who was to occupy the office for 40 years and then serve for an additional 16 years in the specially created position of Librarian Emeritus. It was Putnam who in 1910 questioned whether a service for local residents properly belonged in a federal library and ordered the transfer of the Reading Room's contents to the public library of the District of Columbia. The action was reversed two years later, but it was during that period that an apparent vacuum was filled by the creation of the National Library for the Blind. This was the organization of which Senator Thomas P. Gore of Oklahoma was president for many years; it remained in existence until 1946, when its contents and assets were merged into the Library of Congress.
Herbert Putnam was still the Librarian of Congress when the Pratt-Smoot Act was passed in 1931 and his institution found itself the custodian of $100,000 a year designated for books for the blind. He was in office in 1933 when the Talking Book was added to the program, and in 1935 when the Library was asked to take title to the Talking Book machines that would be manufactured under the WPA project. He retired at the end of 1939, by which time the books for the blind program had swelled to $275,000 a year and the Library held ownership of 21,000 Talking Book machines.
Despite the sizable responsibility entailed in administering large and steadily growing sums, direction of what Putnam regarded as a "project" was never more than a part-time side job for Library officials under his administration. The main responsibility of Herman H.B. Meyer, the first staff member to be put in charge, was as director of the Library's Legislative Reference Service. On retirement he was succeeded by Martin A. Roberts, who simultaneously continued his regular function as chief assistant librarian. When Roberts died in 1940 the program was transferred to a series of Library officials, each carrying it for a short period, until an administrative reorganization in 1946 gave books for the blind divisional status and a full-time director. The first was Xenophon P. Smith, a former Army librarian, who resigned two years later and was succeeded by George A. Schwegemann, Jr., a career employee who had been for many years in charge of the Library's Union Catalog Division and returned to that post in 1951. His successor was Donald G. Patterson, who remained until his retirement in 1957, at which point Robert S. Bray began the 15-year tenure which ended with his retirement in December 1972. During those 15 years Bray shepherded the program's steady growth from the slightly over $1 million appropriation the year he began to more than eight times that sum for fiscal 1972–73.
Viewed at long range, it is evident that the major shift in the Library's attitude toward service for blind readers took place with the retirement of Herbert Putnam and the naming as Librarian of Congress of a series of younger men: Archibald MacLeish (1939–1944), Luther H. Evans (1945–1953), and L. Quincy Mumford, who succeeded Evans and was still in office in 1972.
The transition from reluctant acceptance to enthusiastic affirmation could be traced in successive annual reports issued by the Library. During MacLeish's tenure there began to appear such prideful statements as "the Library of Congress is the world's largest publisher of books for the blind" and "the largest single publishing enterprise was its procurement of books for the adult blind." By 1959 the annual report, signed by Mumford, declared: "One of the most important human services the Library renders is that of providing books for the blind." Perhaps the ultimate testimonial to the program's solid status was the presentation to Bray of the Library's 1969 Distinguished Service Award in recognition of his "far-reaching vision and his brilliant and creative leadership of a continually evolving national program."
At the same time that the Library's attitude toward books for blind readers was changing from a cool handshake to a warm embrace, long years of continuous partnership with organizations whose steady focus was on the needs and welfare of blind persons brought about a growing degree of empathy in the Library staff. Not all of this was an unconscious process. In 1945 Robert Irwin suggested that the staff member in charge of reader service for the blind would gain insight by attending a six-week orientation course the Foundation was giving for social workers. Both the AAWB and the AAIB encouraged Library officials to participate in their conventions.
As the Library's sense of identification with blind people grew, so did its understanding of their needs and desires. All of this contributed to an ever more open viewpoint as to what books and periodicals would be desirable in Talking Book or braille form. It was a long but straight road that led from the Library's bluestocking attitude in the Thirties to its circulation of Portnoy's Complaint in 1970.
In making its selections the Library began, after a while, to seek formal guidance from both readers and librarians. A readers' advisory group, composed of 15 blind and 10 sighted persons, was organized in 1947, along with a separate group made up of librarians; these were subsequently amalgamated into a single advisory committee. When the 1952 amendment extended Talking Book service to children, the Library turned to the Children's Services Division of the American Library Association for assistance in choosing titles. In 1954, following a nationwide conference of regional librarians and others, the Library issued a formal policy statement on book selection which said: "A primary aim is to build up a balanced collection that will satisfy a wide diversity of reader interest. … with due allowance being made for the preferences of the preponderance of the readers for fiction and other popularly presented works." By 1970, the focus on popular titles enabled the Library to say: "It is highly significant that 90 percent of all books on the bestseller lists are issued on Talking Book records, on magnetic tape or in braille."
The selection policy became even more flexible after passage of the 1966 law which brought physically handicapped persons into the ranks of Talking Book readers. The composite reader profile which had guided book selections in the past could no longer serve. Many of the newly added readers were not persons of settled tastes or much experience in life. Typical of the new reader, the Library's 1968 annual report stated, "is a child with cerebral palsy, unable to handle a print book or magazine or to place a record on the turntable or to read braille." Such a child was also apt to be retarded in reading and communication skills: "his mind needs stimulation to introduce him to a world about which he knows amazingly little." Specialized material, recorded at a slower than normal reading rate, was devised to serve this kind of audience. Because the new readers also included thousands of Spanish-speaking persons, the small-scale program for foreign language recording had to be expanded.
That there was a need for many kinds of specialized material in recorded form had been recognized at a much earlier point. During World War II, Archibald MacLeish formed an advisory committee to develop plans for using Talking Books as an adjunct to the rehabilitation of blinded servicemen. One idea that emerged was to emphasize vocational opportunities open to blind persons. The Library suggested that the Foundation "prepare a general recording of talks by successful blind persons in [various vocational fields] and go on from there with more detailed material in each suitable profession."
Over the years Talking Books spanned a wide range of specialized needs. They supplied blind housewives with a variety of cookbooks, told scientifically minded readers about the nation's space exploration program, gave advice on financial planning and personal money management, dealt with particular health problems such as diabetes, put into vocal form the federal income tax guides for individuals and for small businesses. Blind or handicapped lawyers were supplied with weekly taped versions of Supreme Court decisions. Students of instrumental music were offered a series of instructional packages consisting of the same composition in taped, brailled, large-type, and regular printed score form.
Particular as well as general interests were served by a wide variety of magazines. In 1972 there were available for borrowing through regional libraries 24 periodicals on Talking Books and 12 others on tape. The majority of these could also be ordered as paid personal subscriptions by those unwilling to wait for magazines to reach them through the library circulation system. The magazines on Talking Books ranged from American Heritage to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, from Jack & Jill to Harvest Years, from Farm Journal to Newsweek, from Sports Illustrated to Good Housekeeping. Those on tape were equally varied; they included Foreign Affairs, the Personnel and Guidance Journal, High Fidelity, and other periodicals geared to special interests.
The prospect of producing magazines in recorded form was the subject of correspondence between the Foundation and the Library of Congress as early as 1935. A Foundation plan to record the Reader's Digest, which had long been available in braille, fell through because of the cost factor. Four years later, the Printing House, which had initiated a braille edition with the help of contributions solicited through the Reader's Digest Association's Fund for the Blind, was able to secure a private gift with which to launch a Talking Book edition of the magazine. Both the braille and Talking Book editions were supported by funds raised through the Reader's Digest Association.
Cost factors were a constant concern. From the very beginning those in charge of spending the Congressional appropriations allotted for books for the blind were faced with painful choices: Should there be more titles in fewer copies, or fewer titles in more copies? In the early years, when relatively few Talking Book machines were in existence, the emphasis was on as many titles as possible, issued in editions of 100 copies. A distribution formula was worked out for the 25 regional libraries then in operation; each received from one to ten copies of each new title, the number based on population area served. The only exceptions to this formula were the two government-operated leper colonies. The blind people living in the leprosaria at Carville, Lousiana, and on the Hawaiian island of Molokai received Talking Book machines and records on permanent loan.
By 1936 the number of regional libraries had been increased to 28 and the Talking Book editions went up to 125. Although it took more than twenty years before there was a further expansion in the number of distribution centers, the Talking Book editions had to be increased, year by year, as the WPA-manufactured machines were distributed. At the windup of the WPA project in 1942 there were 25,000 blind people in possession of machines that could play Talking Books. If only 125 copies of a book were produced and all 25,000 readers happened to want it, the last in line might have to wait twenty years before his or her turn came. The Library's decision at that point was inescapable; editions had to be enlarged even if it meant fewer titles. The dilemma was resolved by increased appropriations; in 1972, when the number of titles exceeded 700, the average edition ran from 500 to 1,000, depending on the estimated popularity of the particular title.
A major help in satisfying the need for a wide variety of titles was the steady growth of volunteer-produced recordings. Although, as has been noted, the possibility of books recorded by volunteers was foreseen by Robert Irwin as early as 1935, it was not until 1947 that organized programs got under way. Just as the volunteer braillist movement was spurred by the needs of the men blinded in World War I, the desire to be helpful to the blinded veterans of World War II who were attending college under the G.I. Bill of Rights gave birth to spontaneous movements in many parts of the country to meet educational needs through volunteer recording.
A contemporary description by the librarian for the blind in the New York Public Library set forth the modest origin of what was to become an impressive nationwide program. It appeared in the Outlook for December 1947:
The way out was an office dictating machine known as a SoundScriber; it used inexpensive small plastic discs on which 12 or 15 minutes of recorded material could be embossed. Such records were neither very durable nor of high reproduction fidelity, and they required special playback equipment—but they were a start.
Until sound recordings came into the picture, the average blind college student who did not know braille had to depend totally on live readers. Talking Books could supply him with literature of a general and recreational nature, but this was seldom what his professors required by way of course study material. Students who knew braille could get some help through hand-transcribed texts, but such students were seldom in a position to give enough advance notice of their needs for the required books to arrive in time. Under the provisions of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1943, blind college students could receive funds with which to pay for reader services. However there was a ceiling—in some states as low as $20 per month—on such expenditures. Even more troublesome was the process of finding a paid reader, usually a fellow student, whose schedule could be dovetailed into that of the blind student.
Recorded texts solved almost all of these problems. As a midwestern counselor of blind students put it, a playback machine "never gets irritated when asked to repeat, never tries to explain a point, elaborate, refute the text, talk about next Saturday's football game, suggest a Coke or go to sleep."
The first volunteer-recorded books were so gratefully received that the movement spurted forward. All over the country so many groups were organized, under the aegis of libraries, state commissions, or voluntary agencies for the blind, that within a year or two a condition of near chaos developed. The volunteer groups were working independently, using different equipment, different techniques, different standards, and often unknowingly recording the same texts.
In an effort to achieve some form of coordination, a National Committee on Special Recording was organized toward the end of 1950. Consisting largely of New York people, this committee drew up a proposed program that would centralize title clearances, coordinate copyright applications, institute uniformity in circulation practices, and establish minimum standards for recording methods by volunteers. In January 1951 the committee asked the Foundation for a $15,000 grant to put its proposed program into effect. The Foundation thought the purpose would be better served if, instead of making an outright grant, it undertook to provide the committee with most of the services called for. M. Robert Barnett, then beginning his second year as the Foundation's executive director, met with the group to discuss the implications of the counterproposal. If they wanted to go ahead on their own, the Foundation would bow out of the picture.
Even before submitting its application to the Foundation, the committee had explored the possibility of the Library of Congress' taking leadership in the volunteer recording field. The initial response was one of distinct disinterest. However, a change in Library personnel was then taking place, and the committee felt more sanguine about ultimate sponsorship under federal auspices. With this in view, they decided to seek a demonstration grant from the Ford Foundation's Fund for Adult Education to get the program started "pending the time when the Library of Congress will take over." During the demonstration period they would depend on the Foundation to assist in technical and policy questions and to make certain production facilities available, principally the use of its new "instantaneous recording studio," then being installed. This consisted of a bank of 10 linked machines that could turn out simultaneous copies of a single embossed master. A special feature was that records embossed by this process could be played not only on SoundScriber equipment but also on any regulation Talking Book machine or commercial playback machine with a light pickup arm.
When the Fund for Adult Education agreed to make a three-year grant of $75,000, a schism in the membership of the committee brought about fundamental changes in its structure, leadership, and planned course. The original concept of serving as a national coordinating body for existing volunteer groups was dropped. A new body, incorporated under the name National Committee for Recording for the Blind, announced its purpose would be to establish new volunteer recording units throughout the United States, using as a prototype the unit functioning in a branch of the New York Public Library. Within a year, the first committee had been swept out of existence by a new group, controlled by a dynamic set of influential society women. Their head, Mrs. Ranald H. Macdonald, Jr., announced that they were no longer interested in having the Library of Congress take over the project but would turn to the public for operating funds.
Such was the origin of the organization now known as Recording for the Blind, Inc., which grew from a single volunteer unit operating out of a small library in New York City in 1951 to a publicly supported national group which raised $1,600,000 in 1972 to finance 23 recording studios in 14 states. The scope of the program expanded as well. From the original service for visually handicapped college students, the work branched out to recording material for visually handicapped high school and elementary school children as well as more general literature in the overall field of adult education.
Until 1957 the Foundation continued to provide Recording for the Blind with duplicating services for its embossed records; when the latter had acquired sufficient financial backing to handle this process for itself, the Foundation made it a gift of the duplicating and labelling equipment that had been used in producing RFB discs. Two years later, Barnett, who served as one of RFB's official advisors from its inception, resigned the post. With that, the Foundation's quasi-parental role came to an end.
Thanks to a vigorous public relations program, Recording for the Blind commanded much of the national spotlight as a source of specialized and supplementary literature for blind readers, but at no time did it have a monopoly on this field of service. Both before and after its organization there were volunteer groups working independently in numerous cities and states to provide the same sort of recorded literature for students and others with specialized interests.
Several national conferences were held under the auspices of the Library of Congress during the Fifties to promote uniformity of methods and procedures among these diverse groups. In 1960, by which time virtually all volunteer recording services had switched from embossed discs to magnetic tape, the Library undertook responsibility for national coordination and circulation of volunteer-produced tapes. Its long-established service for certification and coordination of the work of volunteer braillists was extended to embrace the tape volunteers and a program was launched to create an orderly national system, with the Library maintaining a central collection of master tapes and financing the duplication of selected titles for distribution through the regional libraries.
The thousands of volunteers enlisted in the Library's program either owned their tape recorders or had access to community-owned taping equipment. Prospective volunteers had to pass a voice test by submitting a sample tape, just as would-be braillists had to submit an acceptable sample of finished work in order to receive certification. Those who passed the voice tests were then assigned books to record and were supplied with the required blank tape.
Under the umbrella of the Library of Congress a great variety of people and groups taped books. They ranged from businessmen and housewives who worked out of their homes, to organized groups who raised funds to set up a tape studio in a central location, to prisoners serving sentences in penal institutions.
In Massachusetts the prison program, begun in the late Fifties, operated under the supervision of a voluntary agency, the National Braille Press in Boston. In Iowa, which started about the same time, the work was supervised by that state's commission for the blind. In 1969 a similar program was started in Maryland. These efforts were hugely successful, not only in what they produced for blind readers but as rehabilitative therapy for the inmates, all of whom did the recording in their free time and not as part of their prison work assignments. A remarkable range of subject matter, from higher mathematics to the Koran, was recorded by the prisoners.
Less confined volunteers demonstrated considerable ingenuity in fulfilling their assignments. Those who recorded in their own homes devised signals to ward against interruptions during taping sessions, a red balloon attached to a door knob or a single rose placed in a window serving to convey the same message as the warning light used in commercial studios: "Do not enter—recording in progress!" When a group of volunteers established a recording studio in the offices of Atlanta's Community Services for the Blind, they saved the cost of a plate glass window between the recording booth and the control room by using a glass table top.
In 1962 the Foundation produced a useful adjunct for all of these groups in the form of a down-to-earth handbook, Tape Recording Books for the Blind. Written by Arthur Helms of the Talking Book studios, the handbook went into such specifics as how to select suitable voices, optimum reading speed, reading habits to be encouraged and those to be avoided, how to deal with foreign words and phrases, how to handle footnotes, illustrations, and tables of contents. In 1965 the Library of Congress began to provide a source of technical assistance by adding to its staff a recording consultant to help volunteer groups design and set up tape studios.
Talking Book readers also benefited from a different form of volunteer service provided from 1960 on by the Telephone Pioneers of America, an organization of 350,000 current and retired telephone company employees banded together for volunteer service. Members of Telephone Pioneers chapters across the country repaired and adjusted Talking Book machines and tape recorders—in some communities, even delivered and demonstrated the equipment to new users. They also conducted several other types of projects including tape recording, hand-brailling and construction of three-dimensional objects with which to illustrate braille books for children.
The service provided by the Pioneers helped solve a long-standing problem. The perennial question of repair had arisen almost as soon as quantities of Talking Book machines began coming off the production lines of the WPA project. The Library of Congress took title to them only on condition that the agencies which handled their distribution would keep the machines in working order. The problem for the agencies was not only in meeting the cost but in finding satisfactory sources of service. Two measures were taken by the Foundation to relieve the situation. One was securing passage of a bill that permitted Talking Book machines to be mailed for repair at the rate of one cent per pound. The other was broadening the WPA contract so that machines could be repaired as well as manufactured by the project's workers. With the closing of the WPA project in mid-1942, the Library of Congress turned to the Foundation to handle servicing of the WPA machines. This the Foundation was equipped to do; it merely expanded the shop which had always repaired its own Talking Book reproducers. The arrangement continued in effect until late 1946, when the Foundation asked to withdraw. The Library then awarded the repair contract to a commercial firm; in later years a non-profit agency, the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind, also bid successfully on both repair service and construction of new Talking Book machines in its sheltered workshop for blind workers. Later still, the Library adopted a decentralized plan under which machines were repaired by local service branches of a commercial manufacturer of record players. With the advent of the Telephone Pioneers volunteer service, it became possible to keep repair problems within reasonable bounds.
The repair question was serious because at the point where the early Talking Book machines might have been considered due for replacement there was no such possibility. When the first machines were ten years old, a normal lifetime for this type of appliance, the United States was deep in war, with manufacture of non-essential civilian goods suspended for the duration. An attempt made by the Foundation in 1942 to secure government permission for continued manufacture of Talking Book machines was only partially successful; a slow trickle of production was permitted to go on until the Foundation's stockpile of raw materials was exhausted. The one effort that did succeed was getting a priority rating on 30 million steel needles, so that blind people could at least continue to use the machines they had; on the models then in existence, a new needle had to be used every time a record was played.
During the war years, the "state of the art" in recording was at a standstill so far as civilian goods were concerned. It was known, however, that great technical strides were being achieved for military purposes. An effort to harness this new knowledge was made in 1945, when the Library of Congress convened a high-level conference on the future of the Talking Book. Those invited included members of the executive and engineering staffs of the Foundation and the Printing House, representatives of commercial recording firms, and a group of experts from several departments of the federal government, among them George W. Corner, M.D., chairman of the Committee on Sensory Devices of the wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development. In view of the extensive use made of Talking Books in hospitals for the war-blinded, it was thought that this committee, which was already working on advanced technological mobility and reading aids for the blind, might be willing to take on the additional task of modernizing Talking Book design. To the Library's disappointment, the committee refused on the grounds that the necessary improvements were within the competence of the phonograph industry.
Soon thereafter the Foundation completed development of a new model of its own Talking Book reproducer, but declined to submit it when the Library of Congress called for bids on a postwar model in 1946. The contract went to a commercial concern. It was the first time anything to do with the Talking Book program had passed out of the hands of non-profit organizations, a fact that caused Robert Irwin to worry—unnecessarily, as it turned out—about the possibility that Talking Book machines might be sold to sighted people not entitled to their use. What he might really have worried about was something he did not anticipate; the Foundation was never again to produce Talking Book machines for the Library of Congress.
The end was foreshadowed only a few months later. In 1947 the Foundation announced development of an entirely new model of Talking Book machine, the Sonograph. It was lightweight, inexpensive, and capable of playing not only pressed records but also the embossed discs that volunteer groups were just then beginning to record for blind students. When the Library of Congress called for bids on 2,500 new Talking Book machines for the 1948–49 fiscal year, Irwin was confident that the Sonograph—far lower in price than any of the dozen or so models submitted by commercial concerns—would be awarded the contract. It was with shocked dismay that the Foundation learned that, instead of being hailed as a design breakthrough, the Sonograph had been rejected by Library officials as having gone too far in the direction of economy and compactness.
Robert Irwin fired off an indignant protest to Luther Evans, Librarian of Congress. His letter brought a soothing but noncommittal reply from Evans, affirming that "the history of cooperation between your organization and the Library of Congress has been unusual" and voicing "great confidence that this will continue to be the case."
Irwin's protest may have been the reason that the Library thereupon decided to reject all bids and to seek the help of the National Bureau of Standards in rewriting the specifications before asking for new bids. The result of this action was twofold. When bidding was reopened on the new specifications, production of the Talking Book machines was awarded to a commercial firm, and the Library contracted with the National Bureau of Standards to provide it with a continuing program of research and development on records and machines.
These developments also had dual consequences. One was that the Foundation never again sought to manufacture Talking Book machines for the Library of Congress; for the next two or three years, it sold its Sonographs to blind persons wishing to buy their own equipment, and thereafter permanently phased out its manufacture of record-playing machines. The second was that the association with the National Bureau of Standards proved to be a mistake. The Library concluded, after four years, that the bureau's research and development services were "inadequate and uneconomical" and turned back for technical guidance to the organization that had given birth to the Talking Book: the American Foundation for the Blind. A research and development contract was negotiated with the Foundation in 1952 and was renewed for a number of years. Concomitantly, the Foundation maintained an independent research program financed out of its own funds as part of its continuing commitment to seek ways of improving all forms of service to blind persons.
The ongoing consultative relationship between the Foundation and the Library of Congress was instrumental in effecting twenty years of major improvements in Talking Book technology: the change from 12-inch discs to lighter-weight 10-inchers; the achievement of ever longer playing times as turntable speeds were halved from 33 1/3 rpm to 16 2/3 and then halved once again to 8 1/3 rpm; the additional increase in playing time as methods were worked out to groove records ever more closely, from the original 150 lines per inch to a pitch of 330; the introduction of sound sheets; the exploration, evaluation, and field-testing of tape recording techniques in open reel and cassette form. Similar attention was given to the design of Talking Book machines, in pursuit of better and more versatile performance, lighter weight, easier operation, and sturdier construction.
Not everything worked out. During the Fifties many months were spent in investigating European recording techniques on tape, film, and wire, only to arrive at the conclusion that these were not adaptable to the Talking Book. In 1956 the Foundation awarded a subcontract to Dr. Peter Goldmark, then head of the Columbia Broadcasting System Laboratories, to develop an 8 rpm record in 7-inch size, grooved so closely (550 lines to the inch) that it could play continuously for two hours. Testing of a prototype of this record and an analysis of the cost factors involved in its production led to the decision that so radical a change from the then prevailing system of 33 1/3 rpm records was premature.
Two years later Dr. Goldmark, serving as a consultant to Recording for the Blind, announced a design for a flyweight record player for his 8 rpm record. More or less simultaneously, the Foundation demonstrated its own version of an 8 rpm record. It differed from the Goldmark version in that it was compatible with the 50,000 Talking Book machines then in existence, whereas the Goldmark design required the use of a totally new reproducer, which would have meant replacing several million dollars' worth of equipment. Neither design was adopted at the time; instead, the intervening step was taken of recording at 16 2/3 rpm. This cautious approach was dictated by the rapid advances then taking place in tape technology, which seemed to suggest that an altogether different future direction was in the offing for recorded books.
During the years in which these and other experimental ventures were going forward in its engineering laboratories, some fundamental changes were also taking place in the Foundation's policies.
From the beginning, the Foundation's relationship to the Talking Book operated on two levels—one concerned with innovation, the other with manufacture. In the early days, the two were hardly separable; each technical innovation was promptly translated into manufacturing changes in the Talking Book records or in the machines for playing them. Evidently it did not occur to the Talking Book pioneers that a line might logically be drawn between experimentation with new ideas on the one hand and manufacture of Talking Books on contract for the Library of Congress on the other. The former admittedly entailed financial risks; the latter was supposed to be a breakeven proposition, yielding no profit to the Foundation but not resulting in operating losses either.
The absence of a clear distinction between these two levels of work was one of the first problems to confront M. Robert Barnett when he became the Foundation's executive director in the fall of 1949. It was also evident that the strategies employed under the former administration to minimize production losses had been ineffectual because wrongly conceived.
The major mistake had been reluctance to invest the capital needed to make the Talking Book plant self-sufficient in manufacturing all the work assigned to it by the Library of Congress. In 1947, Irwin had made an effort to raise $25,000 for these purposes from the Carnegie Corporation, but when the application was turned down, he did not bring sufficient pressure on his trustees to spend the needed money out of the Foundation's own funds. Under Barnett, the executive committee voted the necessary expenditures, and early in 1950 the Foundation proceeded to equip additional soundproof studios; to switch over from making master recordings on wax to the more up-to-date method of making them on tape; to procure and install enough additional plating and pressing equipment so that for the first time it would be in a position to manufacture all of its own Talking Books, from start to finish, on its own premises.
Another basic change was to separate the manufacturing and research functions by relieving J.O. Kleber of managerial responsibility for production. Kleber soon resigned and became director of research for another Foundation-fostered enterprise, National Industries for the Blind, where he remained until his death in 1958. Some of Kleber's functions were taken over by Manuel Powers, who supervised record production and also worked on design improvements for Talking Book machines. Powers, a chemist and electronics engineer, was a perfectionist who during his 14 years with the Foundation spent innumerable nights and weekends in pursuit of his goals. He, too, died in 1958.
By midyear of 1951, Barnett was able to inform the Library of Congress that the Foundation's Talking Book department was now equipped and staffed for three times as much production as the previous year. This was true; what was also true was that a careful cost analysis showed the Talking Book department to be costing the Foundation a great deal of money. In January of 1952 the executive committee debated quite seriously whether the Foundation was justified in going forward with the manufacture of Talking Books at all. On the basis of a detailed study made by Jansen Noyes, Jr. (then treasurer), a series of measures was recommended to cut down the operating losses. Confident that these economies would turn the tide, the executive committee went on record to state its conviction that the Talking Book was "of invaluable service to the blind of the nation." Because that belief has remained unshaken, the Foundation has continued over the years to invest large sums in building and maintaining an extensive, thoroughly modern plant.
Kleber was replaced as general manager of the Talking Book department by John W. Breuel, who later became director of the overall Manufacturing and Sales department. This department included four divisions: Talking Book, Tape Duplicating, Engineering, and Aids and Appliances. The department's structure, with the engineering division bridging all technical operations, was the logical outcome of a series of reorganizations begun early in Barnett's administration to tie technical research more closely to program goals. As part of the reorganization, the Foundation appointed several advisory committees. One of these, the Advisory Committee on Technical Research and Development, formulated the second major policy change affecting the Talking Book.
The committee was a high-powered group; members at the time were Karl M. Dallenbach, chairman, Department of Psychology, University of Texas; Sherman M. Fairchild, president, Fairchild Recording Equipment Corporation; William C. Geer, Geer Laboratory, Ithaca, N.Y.; Peter C. Goldmark, president, CBS Laboratories; Jansen Noyes, Jr., Foundation treasurer; Edward J. Poitras, director of engineering, Fenwal, Inc., Ashland, Mass.; Jerome B. Wiesner, director of the research laboratory of electronics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There were also two associate members: Thornton C. Fry, assistant to the president, Bell Telephone Laboratories, and Edwin H. Land, president, Polaroid Corporation.
At the beginning of 1958 the committee recommended, after considerable discussion, that the Foundation "immediately and substantially reduce active research of its own on both tape and records" while continuing to encourage and assist research by others. The fundamental reason for this was that commercial research in magnetic tape and other types of recording was in progress that would inevitably outpace any efforts the Foundation could afford. Reduced activity in Talking Book research, furthermore, would free the Foundation to "take stock of its capacity for research and development in other areas of technology" affecting blind persons.
An initial objective of the Talking Book program was to make the cost of recorded books comparable with the cost of braille books. Once this goal had been achieved and surpassed, the aim became to bring the cost down to the price of the same book in a standard inkprint edition. This target was reached and overtaken (due in some measure to the rise in prices of inkprint books), and beating the cost of the paperback became the new aim. The 30-minute-per-side Talking Book record which cost $1 in the Fifties gave way to the 45-minute-per-side platter which cost 50 cents in the Sixties and 40 cents in the early Seventies. The Library of Congress' 1972 decision that, beginning the first of the following year, all new Talking Books would be recorded at 8 rpm (90 minutes per side) was expected to make it possible for the average 12-hour book to be produced for $3 or less. Nor would this necessarily be the end of the line. A 4 rpm record was experimentally produced by Foundation engineers as far back as 1966; it was a 12-inch disc which played for more than 10 hours.
A major factor in bringing down costs was the increasing use of automated equipment. The Foundation, which in 1972 was pressing 10,000 records a day, installed six new automatic presses that would increase the annual production to 3 million a year; its trustees voted that year to appropriate $340,000 for additional automated equipment and plant modernization.
A possibility for the future was that Talking Books might eventually be produced as flexible sound sheets, whose manufacturing costs would be lowest of all. The overall savings would be greater still: sound sheets would not be circulated but sent to the reader to keep or discard at will, thereby eliminating the handling and maintenance costs entailed in a circulation system. Another possibility was that the Talking Book of tomorrow would be a multi-track cassette at such slow speed (15⁄16; ips) that a two-track tape would produce 3 hours of reading and a four-track would double this. Marathon eight-track cassettes, which provided up to 13 hours of reading, replaced disc recording in the British Talking Book service in the early Sixties. In the United States the cassettes produced for the Library of Congress in 1972 were being recorded at 1⅞ ips on dual-track tape, but experiments were going forward on slower speeds and additional tracks.
It is an accepted premise in research that not every avenue of inquiry will lead to useful discovery. Work on the Talking Book was no exception. One of the investigations which had yet to prove itself concerned methods of achieving speech compression.
If you, the reader of the inkprint edition of this book, read at average speed, you are encompassing about 300 words a minute. If you are a naturally fast reader, or have learned speed reading, you may be covering the pages at two or three times that rate. If, as a blind person, you are reading with your fingertips and are proficient in braille, your speed may be 100 words per minute. If you are listening to a recorded version, you are hearing the text read at about 175 words per minute, which is the optimum rate at which words can be spoken with accuracy and pleasing diction.
More than twenty years have been devoted to efforts to devise some form of "speed hearing" for blind listeners. There is a simple mechanical way to increase the delivery rate of recorded information: speeding up the turntable. Blind students were among the first to try this when three-speed turntables became commercially available shortly after World War II. By playing a 33 1/3 rpm Talking Book at 45 rpm, they increased the word rate from 175 words per minute to about 250. This simultaneously brought about a rise in pitch, but it was within tolerable limits. Tape could also be speeded up. When, however, attempts were made to play discs or tape at much more than 50 percent over the recorded speed, the sounds were those of an agitated Donald Duck.
Would comprehension suffer from increased speed? Tests conducted with blind school children by the psychologist Emerson Foulke of the University of Louisville demonstrated that the youngsters could absorb increases of up to 50 percent in word rate without significant reduction in their grasp of the recorded material.
Speech compression was one of the investigative areas proposed by the Foundation as early as 1953 under its research contract with the Library of Congress. It was not assigned a high priority. However, work on various electrical, mechanical, and electronic approaches was undertaken in a number of commercial and university laboratories during the Fifties and Sixties. The factor of economics defeated them all.
Speech compression, a process of squeezing sounds closer together, could be achieved in several different ways. One was by reducing or eliminating pauses between words—the aural equivalent of shortening or omitting the spaces between words in print. Another was by dropping out relatively non-essential words such as articles, pronouns, conjunctives. A third was by automatically eliminating minute bits of sound at fractional intervals, comparable to taking a series of tiny tucks in a length of material. A fourth was by condensing sounds electronically.
This last-named approach underlay what was called a harmonic speech compressor, an apparatus built by Foundation engineers toward the end of the Sixties. It was based on a complicated theoretical method developed by engineers at the Bell Telephone Laboratories for cutting sound frequency bands in half. The Bell engineers tested their theory by simulating the results on a computer but did not actually construct the apparatus. Foundation engineers were given the right to build an actual speech compressor and their construction of a prototype, completed in 1968, bore out the promises of the computer simulation. The speed of sound was doubled, to 320–340 words per minute, without pitch distortion.
Whether this intricate electronic device would ever move from the laboratory into actual application was still an open question in 1972, when it was being tested, along with other speech compression devices, at the University of Louisville.
Another possible approach to "speed hearing" was introduced toward the end of 1971. A commercial firm, the Cambridge Research and Development Group of Westport, Connecticut, had developed an electronic device called Variable Speech Control (VSC). VSC was an inexpensive solid-state module, smaller than a sugar cube, which, when built into a phonograph or tape recorder, enabled the user to control the rate of speech playback from ultra-slow to ultra-fast without alteration in tone or pitch. The developers awarded royalty-free licenses to produce and market machines incorporating the VSC to the Foundation and the Printing House.
As an interim measure, the newer models of Talking Book machines were equipped with an optional accessory, an attachment for variable motor speed which enabled the user to adjust the turntable rate to whatever degree of speed was both comfortable and comprehensible.
The 24 libraries that helped launch Talking Books in 1934 were those chosen to distribute braille books under the Pratt-Smoot Act of 1931. Regarded as regional depositories, each serving a designated area comprising one or more states, they functioned under various kinds of sponsorship. Some were units of state libraries, others were divisions of municipal public libraries, and still others were operated by state commissions, schools, or voluntary agencies for the blind. Federal funds for books for the blind were reserved wholly for supplying these libraries with reading materials and with the machines to play those in recorded form. Responsibility for housing, equipping, and staffing the libraries for reader service remained with their respective parent bodies.
As the federal expenditures grew, the libraries for the blind found themselves under steadily increasing pressure. At the outset of the program, they had 12,000 enrolled readers; by 1945, the number was 25,000; by 1950, it was 40,000; by 1960, it was 63,000; and five years after that, the active readership reached six figures. A great burst followed passage of Public Law 89-522, which opened the Talking Book program to the physically handicapped, with the result that, by 1972, Library of Congress officials cited the readership as 300,000 and climbing.
The growth pattern in the number of distributing libraries did not parallel this climb in readership. In 1936, two years after the introduction of the Talking Book, there were 28 regional libraries, but the next increase did not come until 1959, when two new units were opened; five years later, there were two more. The spurt in distribution began with the passage of the Library Services and Construction Act of 1966 which authorized, among other things, $25 million over a five-year period in grants to the states to provide or improve library service to the physically handicapped. Another provision of the same act authorized $50 million over a five-year period to improve library services in state institutions, including residential schools for the handicapped. Coupled with passage that same year of Public Law 89-522, there finally emerged the stimulus that saw the number of regional libraries shoot up to 51 in 1972. The ultimate goal of at least one distributing library in each of the American states, territories, and possessions now seemed within reach.
It might well have been achieved earlier. Soon after M. Robert Barnett became executive director of the Foundation, he met with Library of Congress officials to sound out their attitude toward federal subsidies to help meet the cost of distributing books for the blind. What the Foundation had in mind at the time—this was the summer of 1950—was introducing a bill in Congress that would simultaneously increase the number of regional libraries, which had been static for 14 years, and help relieve the shortages of staff and space that were choking the existing depositories.
At this meeting, the major problems facing the libraries were itemized: readership growing at a steep rate, annual circulation of close to a million volumes of braille and recorded books, the continuous issuance of new titles, the physical work burdens involved in distribution of the postwar Talking Book machines, the need to scrap and replace thousands of worn-out records and machines that had seen constant use for up to fifteen years. No systematic practice of obsoletion existed for Talking Books; out-of-date scientific tomes, for example, continued to be circulated in the absence of authority to withdraw them. Hard usage at the hands of one reader after another had resulted in numbers of broken sets; any set of Talking Books whose continuity was shattered because of a single missing or scratched record had to be withheld from circulation until it could be made complete. The libraries were unequipped to cope with all these mechanical problems and still give their subscribers the kind of personalized service needed by blind readers.
Library of Congress officials, while acknowledging the gravity of these difficulties, were not amenable to the idea of outright federal subsidy. Their position was that the distribution and servicing of the federally provided reading materials for the blind were properly the responsibility of the individual states. While less opposed to an alternative proposal for a matching federal-state system of support, they were unready to commit themselves. In the circumstances, any thought of introducing the contemplated bill was dropped, since the wholehearted backing of the Library of Congress would be essential to its chances of passage.
What did materialize from this discussion was a decision to convene a broadly representative national meeting of regional librarians and other interested parties. The first National Conference on Library Service for the Blind was held in November 1951. Of the 16 resolutions it adopted, only one even touched on financial questions, and that one merely proposed a study "looking to the amelioration of the burden now assumed by various distributing agencies and libraries." Most of the other resolutions called for strengthened service and leadership from the Library of Congress on such specific items as cataloging, retirement of surplus or unserviceable books and machines, and more effective communication links with and among the distributing libraries.
Many of these services were quickly instituted. The following year the Library of Congress began issuing printed catalog cards for Talking Book and braille volumes, cards similar to the centralized cataloging service it had long provided for books in inkprint. A system for periodic obsoletion of Talking Book records was soon begun. To provide additional service on a national scale, the staff of the Division for the Blind was steadily enlarged; the 18 authorized positions it had in 1950 went to 28 by 1960, 72 by 1970, and 92 by 1972.
While all of these measures helped to alleviate some of the pressures on the regional libraries, a nationwide survey conducted by the Foundation five years after the first national conference concluded that most of the depositories of books for the blind were still inadequately financed, housed, and staffed. A $20,000 grant from the Matilda Ziegler Foundation helped to finance this survey. The recommendations of the survey team, which consisted of 11 eminent librarians aided by an equally distinguished advisory committee, were substantially along the same lines as before. It was not, however, until passage of the twin library laws in 1966 that the libraries for the blind were in a position to effect any really substantial improvements. Not only were new ones opened, but in the older libraries staffs were expanded, new or enlarged quarters were secured, and services were augmented to encompass the new class of physically handicapped readers brought within the Talking Book orbit.
Robert S. Bray often talked about his first view of a regional library for the blind. Bray, who joined the Library staff in 1940 and had worked in several of the Library's divisions, was chief of the Technical Information Division in 1957 when the retirement of Donald G. Patterson created a vacancy in the Division for the Blind. Bray happened to be attending a convention in a midwestern city when he received a telephone call notifying him that he had been chosen to succeed Patterson. As he subsequently related:
Such desolate environments are now a thing of the past. Most libraries for the blind eventually acquired bright and spacious quarters. Some contained such features as soundproof reading rooms or carrels for quiet browsing. More important still, since most readers continued to be served by mail, they acquired adequate space and facilities for receiving and shipping the hundreds of sound-recorded and braille books that moved in and out each day, and clerical staffs to maintain the individual reader records and book catalogs. At least one regional library installed a 24-hour telephone tape system so that readers could phone in their book requests at any hour. Many equipped tape recording studios for use by volunteers, as well as duplicating machines to make multiple copies of the volunteer-recorded tapes.
A growing practice among regional libraries was to place deposit collections of Talking Books and tapes in such institutions as hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and convalescent and retirement homes, as well as in local schools and public library branches. This satellite system numbered 60 subregional centers in 1972; it was not only a convenience for the bed-bound and those with limited mobility but helped to produce greater awareness of the service among the handicapped people who were eligible to receive it.
One feature noted by Library of Congress officials in 1972 was the intensive usage being made by Talking Book readers, who were averaging more than 40 books a year. Readers are kept regularly informed of the new books available to them. All who are registered with the regional libraries receive, free of charge, the bi-monthly magazine Talking Book Topics, which contains annotated descriptions of new releases on records and tape. Every two years Talking Book Topics prints separate catalogs of the adult and children's books released during the period; cumulative catalogs of the total collection are also issued from time to time.
Each issue of Topics contains a detachable order form that the reader can use to request books from his regional library. So that blind people would not have to wait until a sighted member of the family could read them the publication's contents, the practice began in 1968 of binding into each issue a sound sheet giving the new book descriptions in recorded form.
Talking Book Topics originated in 1935 as a two-page mimeographed quarterly prepared by Alice Smith and Jane Muhlfeld, two blind members of the Foundation's staff, to inform the fewer than five hundred persons then in possession of Talking Book machines of the hundred or so books thus far recorded. A year later, when the number of machine users had reached four thousand, Topics graduated from mimeograph to print.
The sound sheet also had an early antecedent. In 1939 the Foundation began to produce a recorded edition of Talking Book Topics, for which it charged a nominal subscription fee of $1 a year. As a matter of historical record, this was the very first periodical to be issued in sound-recorded form. It was discontinued in 1959 when the Foundation, which had been subsidizing its production, had to do some budgetary belt-tightening.
Financing of the inkprint edition of Talking Book Topics, originally edited and published at Foundation expense, was subsequently taken over by the Library of Congress. It became a joint endeavor, with the Foundation serving as editor and publisher and the Library meeting the costs of publication. Topics became a bi-monthly in 1953; in 1964 it changed format to a larger type and page size and expanded its editorial coverage. A sans serif typeface and additional space between lines were introduced a year or so later for the convenience of partially sighted readers. With a 1972 press run of some 200,000 copies, it constituted an essential link between producers and users of sound-recorded books.
To be eligible for Talking Book service, an applicant is required to submit professional certification of his inability to read ordinary print or to handle books. This requirement supersedes the pre-1966 regulation that stipulated legal blindness. Only once had an exception been made to the earlier eligibility rule. In 1955, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was stricken with a heart attack while vacationing in Denver, his doctors refused to allow him even the exertion of holding a book in his hands. The Talking Book was an obvious answer. The regional library in Denver did what it could while the Foundation immediately set about obtaining permission from the publishers of six light novels—westerns, mysteries, and adventure stories—to exempt the President of the United States from the "solely for the use of the blind" restriction. The books and a playback machine were air-expressed to Denver. A gracious note from Mrs. Eisenhower ("We are touched that you found it possible to make the President an exception to the qualifications necessary to receive the books; I know they will help pass many of the long hours of his convalescence.") closed the file on this footnote to history.
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