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)|
|Dr Moon's Alphabet for the Blind, c. 1850s (GD52/1/1/1)|
|Moon's Alphabet in different languages (GD52/3/3)|
|A map in Moon's System (GD52/3/1)|
|Geometry taught using Moon's Alphabet (GD52/3/3)|
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.