Friday, 15 September 2017

Reading by Moon's type...

This week, Louise has been finding out about just how much reading can mean to those with sight loss, and how systems of reading for the blind are reflected in our archive...

A couple of weeks ago, we were lucky enough to receive an invitation from our friends at the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) Scotland to attend an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with author Graeme Macrae Burnet. The event was a recording of a special edition of Connect Radio, RNIB's online radio station, based around talking books. We've worked with RNIB Scotland before as well as holding their archive. We've participated in their Seeing Our History project by indexing Edinburgh's Register of the Outdoor Blind from the beginning of the twentieth century, and also hosted researchers around the project.

RNIB is dedicated to opening up books to people with sight loss, by providing braille and giant print editions or talking books that can be accessed by digital download or through a USB drive or CD. Titles are available free to borrow from RNIB's online library. The event started with an interview with Graeme Macrae Burnet hosted by Connect Radio presenter Robert Kirkwood. You can borrow both of Burnet's current books from the RNIB library - the first, The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau and his latest, His Bloody Project. His Bloody Project made the Man Booker Prize shortlist last year, and as such was available in accessible versions. RNIB work in partnership with prize organisers every year to make sure that the six shortlisted novels are available to those with sight loss in talking book, braille and giant print versions. His Bloody Project is based around (fictional!) 'found documents' from the archives, and the very real career of police psychiatrist and criminology pioneer James Bruce Thomson, so that immediately peaked my interest...

The interview was then followed by a panel discussion about how much having access to reading through RNIB has meant to individuals, both those born without sight, and those having to deal with progressive blindness. It brought home how reading in whatever form has the ability to lift people feeling isolated and alone, especially those coping with deteriorating vision. Reading can be a form of imaginative escapism and widening horizons, and blindness can limit access to those experiences, not to mention the possibility of being unable to participate in the way that books weave themselves into daily life and culture.

Attending the Book Festival event made me think of much earlier evidence about promoting access to reading reflected in the RNIB archive. The earliest example that we have is Moon's Type. William Moon (1818-1894) invented a simplified system of raised type (the Braille system of dots is also raised type, more familiar to us now).

William Moon, 1873 (GD52/3/1)
 Moon had lost the sight in one eye at aged four. After leaving school his sight deteriorated until he was completely blind by aged 21, scuppering his ambitions to become a missionary. Following many failed experiments dating back to as early as the sixteenth century, raised type as a system of reading for the blind started to gain ground in late eighteenth century France. Moon himself mastered reading in raised type, but was distressed to find that some people could not. There would have been a couple of different versions at the time, including Lucas's Alphabet and Alston's Alphabet. Moon instead invented a simplified form of raised type alphabet, using fourteen different shapes at different angles. 

Dr Moon's Alphabet for the Blind, c. 1850s (GD52/1/1/1)
At first, Moon printed texts himself. From the beginning, the invention of the type was tied into Moon's evangelical Christian faith - he wanted to bring scripture to those whose lack of sight meant that they couldn't read the Bible in conventional ways. Moon's Alphabet was also adaptable to many different languages (particularly helpful to the travelling evangelical mission community), as shown below.

Moon's Alphabet in different languages (GD52/3/3)
Moon not only traveled around the UK, but also in Europe and as far afield as Australia  to promote his system of reading. One list of Moon's texts in English and other languages from his own lifetime was made up solely of scripture, texts on scripture or raised maps:

A map in Moon's System (GD52/3/1)
Another more extensive catalogue does feature memoirs (of religious figures and royalty) and poetry, although'poetry' is mainly made up of hymns! However, there were also teaching materials for children in Moon's Alphabet:

Geometry taught using Moon's Alphabet (GD52/3/3)
Helped by donations from wealthy patron Charles Lowther, Moon's system spread, and was received extremely favourably compared to previous, more complicated alphabets. Moon also drove the rise of the Home Teaching Society initiative, where blind people would be encouraged to read in their own homes, spreading Moon's Alphabet to those outside the Blind Asylums (institutions to provide work and lodging to blind people). Edinburgh had a Home Teaching Society (founded in 1856), the Edinburgh Society for Promoting Reading Amongst the Blind at their Own Homes on Moon's System, reflected in the earliest reports we have in the RNIB collection.

Early reports from the Edinburgh Society (GD52/1/1/1) 

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a document that was meant to fuel charitable donations, the reports we have from the Edinburgh Society are full of praise for Moon's system. A bit more unusually, though, they cite experiences from partially sighted people themselves (albeit mediated through the testimonies of their tutors). This is one case study from the 1858 report:

"Mr. ------ has been blind for eight years. A few months ago a friend sent him Moon's Alphabet, but having no one to explain it, he could at first make nothing of it. A few weeks afterwards, however, meeting a blind member of the congregation with whom he is connected, he mentioned the circumstance. His friend happened to be a reader by Moon's system, and in one lesson had the pleasure of remving all his difficultues. Mr. ---- can now read with ease and comfort." (1858)

The 1860 report featured a direct statements from the male inmates of Edinburgh's Blind Asylum:

"The character is simple, easily felt and easily remembered. We are warranted in stating that individuals of any age can easily acquire a knowledge of it with the least possible trouble."

The sheer variety of texts, formats and ways to consume reading (without being treated as an object of pity or potential vessel for conversion) offered by RNIB shows just how far reading for partially sighted people has come since the earliest examples we hold. If you're interested in helping more people with sight loss to access the lifeline of reading, you can learn how to sponsor a talking book here.

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