WASHINGTON, D.C. (October 28, 2021)—The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) today announced the Library of Congress has acquired the M. C. Migel Rare Book Collection, comprised of over 750 titles, spanning from 1617 to the 20th century. Many of the volumes are seminal in the blindness field, offering descriptions of changing social attitudes, innovations in teaching methods, and care for those with vision loss over the past 300 years.

“The acquisition of these titles and booklets by the nation’s foremost library is a wonderful step forward towards disseminating the history of blindness and recognizing the importance of disability history,” said Kirk Adams, Ph.D., AFB president and CEO. “These volumes reflect centuries-old stigma surrounding blindness, and societies’ efforts at progress in the form of work opportunities for blind men and women, innovative teaching methods, and the twists and turns in the development of tactile books.”

“The Library‘s acquisition of this collection reinforces our long-standing commitment to serving blind and disabled communities,” said Jason Broughton, director of the Library of Congress' National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. “NLS works daily to ensure that all may read, and the Migel collection provides an excellent historical foundation as to why our work has been, and continues to be, so necessary.”

The collection was born when Robert Irwin, AFB’s first director, prioritized the creation of a definitive reference library for the blindness field. In 1926, AFB’s board of trustees granted him $1,000 to start the collection. Materials were donated from around the country, and as the library grew, AFB in 1929 hired a full-time librarian, Helga Lende. The collection was compiled primarily by Lende, who then traveled to Europe, acquiring volumes for the organization. As a result, there are texts in English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Esperanto, Dutch, Polish and Norwegian.

Proceeds from the sale of the rare book collection to the Library of Congress will go towards supporting AFB’s Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, the premier professional resource for information and research about visual impairment.

Highlights from the M. C. Migel Rare Book Collection

The earliest book in the collection was published in France in 1617. It concerns Louis Grotto, an Italian Ambassador and orator who was blind, and is titled Les Harangues de Louys Grotto, Aveugle D’Hadrie Admirable en Eloquence (The Speeches of Louys Grotto, A Blind Man Famed for His Eloquence).

The first landmark book in the library is Denis Diderot’s Lettre Sur Les Aveugles À l'Usage de Ceux Qui Voyent (A Letter Regarding the Blind for the Attention of Those Who See), which was published in 1749. Considered radical in its day, the book considers how the intellect is dependent on all five senses and what happens when it is deprived of sight. Diderot claimed that the blind mathematician Nicholas Saunderson had stated that he would believe in God only if he could touch him. The possible implication—that Diderot was denying the existence of God—resulted in Diderot’s imprisonment in Paris for three months.

Saunderson’s own The Elements of Algebra, published in 1740, is also in the collection. Saunderson was an English mathematician who became blind as an infant. He was subsequently elected a professor of mathematics at Cambridge University.

Works in the collection also highlight the evolution of tactile methods of reading. Beginning in the late 18th century, independent reading and study by people who were blind was becoming more widespread. The collection contains two copies of the rare first edition of Essai Sur L'Education des Aveugles (Essay on the Education of the Blind) by Valentin Haüy. Published in Paris in 1786, these titles were printed using embossed letters of the French alphabet. That same year, Haüy founded L’Institution des Enfants Aveugles in Paris, the first school for blind children, and later founded the first school for blind children in Russia. His pioneering work led to the creation of schools in many European countries. Haüy’s work marked the origin of modern methods in the education of people who were blind.

Another tactile innovation represented in the collection includes Moon Type. Invented in 1845 by William Moon, an Englishman who became blind at 21, this embossed printing used the outline of letters derived from the Latin alphabet. This system was considered easier to use than braille, but less compact.

The rarest book in the collection is Précis Sur L’Histoire de France (A Summary of the History of France), Paris, 1837. This volume is one of only three known copies of the first edition of the first book embossed using the braille system, which used dots rather than raised letters of the alphabet. The other two copies of this rare book are located at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, and at the Haüy Museum in Paris.

For additional information, see also the Library of Congress press release.

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About the American Foundation for the Blind
Founded in 1921, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) is a national nonprofit that creates a world of no limits for people who are blind or visually impaired. AFB mobilizes leaders, advances understanding, and champions impactful policies and practices using research and data. AFB is proud to steward the Helen Keller Archive, maintain and expand the digital collection, and honor the more than 40 years that Helen Keller worked tirelessly with AFB. Visit: www.afb.org