Washington Talking Book and Braille Library

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 4/14/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 4155

The Washington Talking Book and Braille Library is operated by The Seattle Public Library under a contract with the Washington State Library. Since 1907, the Seattle Public Library has served blind readers throughout the state with braille and other embossed-alphabet books and magazines. The advent of the talking book -- unabridged books on long-playing records -- in 1934 greatly expanded readership and the workload at the library. Volunteers played an essential role from the earliest days, transcribing books into braille and later into talking books and cassette books. After almost 100 years, the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library offers books in large print, braille, and on cassette tapes, as well as the Evergreen Radio Reading Service. More than 400 volunteers contribute more than 33,000 hours of their time annually.

Reading Technology for the Blind

In 1829, Louis Braille (1809-1852) a teacher of the blind in Paris, adapted a system of writing developed by Valentin Hauy consisting of letters embossed on cardboard. Braille's system used six dots arranged in different patterns to represent 63 letters and numbers. In 1845, Englishman William Moon developed his own system also using embossed figures. American educator William Bell Wait (1839-1916) invented the New York Point system of embossed letters, which was adapted to music notation as well as writing. Wait also invented the Kleidograph for the blind to write his alphabet on paper and the Stereograph to print books for the blind. Wait's New York system was popular among readers with less sensitive touch such as those with hands hardened by manual labor.

The Seattle Public Library and all its books burned down in 1901, after which the librarians began to rebuild the collection. In 1907, the library stocked two magazines in braille, and began to circulate books in braille. Books for the blind were expensive. Little Women in braille extended for four volumes and cost $14 as against about a dollar in conventional format. Only a large library system like Seattle's could afford to stock these titles.

The U.S. Post Office handled books for the blind free of postage, so Seattle loaned to any blind reader in the state who wanted to read. By 1912, the library had 370 titles regularly used by 137 borrowers throughout the state. In 1912, a gift of $500 allowed the library to expand its collection further. Although only about three titles per week were being circulated, the library trustees and management considered this an important service.

The biggest challenge to building circulation for books for the blind in the 1910s was locating readers. Seattle librarians wrote to other librarians around the state asking for the names of people who would benefit from the service. They used records of the 1910 U.S. Census to identify persons listed as blind and each received a letter offering a list of books available for loan. Circulation doubled between 1914 and 1915, and almost doubled again the following year.

A Regional Resource

In 1919, the library established a Blind Division as part of the Circulation Department, and Fanny (Reynolds) Howley (1887-1973) became its head (and only staff member). Howley would run the department for the next 34 years. She organized volunteers from the Junior League, the American Red Cross, and the Seattle Council of Jewish Women into a transcription service in which books in braille were produced locally. The volunteer component of Seattle's Library for the Blind would be an important part of the service for the next 80 years. The Blind Division worked out of cramped space on the second floor of the Carnegie Central Library.

Librarian Howley also started twice-weekly reading classes with student volunteers from the University of Washington. The classes and the library became an important meeting place for blind persons to discuss common concerns and to socialize.

The Talking Book

The Great Depression (1929-1939) was devastating for the Seattle Public Library. In 1932, it lost a quarter of its budget and at least 40 employees plus the bookmobile, hospital services, and purchases of new books. But in 1931, Congress passed the Pratt-Smoot Bill, which funded libraries for the blind. The Library of Congress designated Seattle as one of 28 regional Libraries for the Blind and provided funds for new books. The Library for the Blind serviced all of Washington, Alaska, and Montana with funding (most years) from the state legislatures.

In 1934, after copyright issues were resolved and technology improved, the talking book was introduced on special phonograph records that played at 33 1/3 r.p.m. (commercial records at the time played at 78 r.p.m.). Federal funds paid for both new titles and the playback machines. The machines were shipped free of charge to borrowers (talking books could not be played on regular phonographs which used different styluses). Readers without electricity could receive battery operated machines. To qualify for the service, a person had to be unable to see at 20 feet a thing a sighted person could see at 200 feet. The talking book proved immensely popular because borrowers did not have to learn a new alphabet.

A single talking book might occupy as many as 15 or 20 double-sided records. (The Holy Bible took up 169 disks, but these were never loaned all at once.) The records were packaged in reusable cardboard containers bound by straps. A card with the addressee's information on one side was slipped into a slot on the box. For return, the card was reversed to display the library's address. Each book weighed from eight to 15 pounds.

Readers submitted their requests by mail or they appeared in person. Librarians kept track of borrowers' interests and what they had read so that if a title was unavailable, something else the reader might enjoy was shipped.

More Books, More Room

In 1945, the Library for the Blind was moved from the Carnegie library downtown into the basement auditorium of the Fremont Branch. Although there was more room than at the main library, the space was still cramped. In addition, the heavy talking books and multi-volume braille titles -- 50 to 100 daily, one loaded mail truck -- had to be hauled up and down the stairs and out over the front walkway to the curb. Some borrowers found visits to the branch library cumbersome because of the streetcar transfers and because the branch was hard for them to find.

In 1954, the Library for the Blind moved to specially designed space in the Henry Library on Capitol Hill. The new location provided room for more transcription services and better access for the daily mail. More talking book titles for children became available and the library began to offer story hours specifically designed for blind children. Three full-time and four part-time staff members were assisted by as many as 70 volunteers who handled a full range of jobs including receiving mail, preparing books for shipment, and transcription.

A committee at the Library of Congress chose what books were published and recorded for the blind, but Northwest readers were also interested in local topics. The Library for the Blind transcribed Northwest authors and works about the Northwest. Volunteers worked with braille machines to produce the embossed pages that were bound into books. Other volunteers read from books in special studios to produce talking books and textbooks. Talking books accounted for two thirds of the library's collection and 90 percent of the circulation.

Better Reading Through Better Technology

The 1960s saw the use of magnetic tape for talking books, but the real breakthrough came late in the decade with invention of the cassette. Reel-to-reel tapes were far more compact than a box of records, but using the playback equipment required some dexterity. The cassette could be mailed and used without touching the tape itself. The cassette books differed from commercially available books on tape in that the cassette books were not abridged and they required special playback machines with controls designed for the blind. As with the books on records, the playback machines were provided free to borrowers and shipped postage paid.

The long-playing records got a technological boost of sorts when in 1962, they were redesigned to play at 16 2/3 r.p.m., down from 33 1/3. This halved the size of books that were mailed (and carried). Borrowers were provided with two-speed machines to accommodate both formats. Later developments reduced the speed further to 8 1/3 r.p.m. on flexible disks. The talking books on records and flexible disks endured through the rest of the century and were finally pulled from service in 2001.

In the 1960s, the library began to serve persons whose disability prevented them from turning the pages of a book. The recordings provided an important window on the world. A borrower did not have to be legally blind to use the library's services. Montana formed its own talking book library in 1967 and Alaska did the same in 1973. The name in Seattle changed to the Washington Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

On the Air

In 1973, the library moved into bigger space with the King County Library at 811 Harrison Street near downtown Seattle. On March 22, 1973, the Radio talking book took to the air. Volunteers and staff broadcast books, newspapers, and magazines eight hours a day to 500 blind patrons. Listeners used special receivers (provided free) to pick up the signal. This service was particularly valuable to persons who could not operate a phonograph or a cassette player. The U.S. Government funded the move and the new service under the Handicapped and Elderly Learning Program. By the end of the year, programming filled 106 hours a week.

In 1977, the Radio talking book became the Radio Reading Service. A gift from the University Lions Club allowed the library to buy 283 receivers and to eliminate the one-and-a-half year waiting list. On April 25, 1983, it became the Evergreen Radio Reading Service as the programming reached Spokane. The signal was transmitted via phone line from Seattle to Spokane radio station KPBX-FM.

Second Audio Program (SAP) was a feature added to a television signal so that the vision-impaired could hear a description of the picture on the screen in addition to hearing dialogue. This feature was added to the signal from KTCS-TV November 1992 to August 2001 (when an equipment upgrade proved incompatible with the service).

The new location on Harrison Street allowed volunteers to record 350 books a year. Volunteer transcribers each spent nine months learning braille before they were permitted to transcribe a book.

In 1983, the lease with the King County Library expired and the library moved again, this time to the old S. L. Savage automobile dealership at 9th Avenue and Lenora Street. Except for an interruption in 1996 and 1997 for a major remodel, this has been the home of the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library and the Seattle Public Library's Mobile Services since that time. The new space allowed for better and larger transcription and broadcast studios and more room for stacks and equipment repair.

On January 1, 1994, the name changed to Washington Talking Book and Braille Library. In 2003, the library offered a wide array of services for the blind and handicapped with the help of more than 400 volunteers:

  • Cassette books
  • Repairs of cassette book players
  • Transcription of books into braille
  • Transcription of books onto cassette books
  • Evergreen Radio Reading Service - programming 24 hours a day
  • Large print books
  • Deposit collections at libraries, schools, senior centers, and long term care facilities around the state
  • Online catalogue
  • Disability focused reference services

Services are available to those who are legally blind, deaf-blind, visually impaired (cannot easily read conventional size print), physically disabled, or learning disabled.

The Children's Room at the library offers a quiet area where young readers can use Baby Board Books -- children's titles to which braille overlays have been added. These can be used by parents reading to blind youngsters who can experience the braille alphabet, or by blind parents to read to sighted children. Other resources include games and toys that emphasize tactile sensations, and titles on pregnancy and parenting.

Volunteers at the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library serve in almost every function. One team repairs the 15,500 active playback machines in home workshops. Another group examines every talking book returned by borrowers to insure that all the cassettes are in good working order. It takes two volunteers to tape one cassette book; one reads the text and the other monitors for quality control. The on-air talent of the 24-hour Evergreen Radio Reading Service consists entirely of volunteers.

By 2002, the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library circulated more than 2,000 books a day to almost 11,000 regular borrowers.


Annual Report for the Seattle Public Library, 1919 to 2001; Elizabeth Wright Evans, "Talking Books," The Seattle Sunday Times, June 7, 1959, Magazine Section, p. 4; Byron Fish, "Library for Blind Has Huge Work Load," The Seattle Times, March 29, 1954, p. 17; Vince O'Keefe, "An Exclusive Network and a Dandy Host," Ibid., July 22, 1973, p. D-1; Byron Fish, "Volunteers Needed to Help Library Serve NW Blind," Ibid., October 29, 1956, newsclipping in Seattle Public Library Archives; "Library for Blind Needs Volunteers," newsclipping, September 20, 1957, Ibid.; "Volunteers Turn Sight Into Sound," Globe-News, August 4, 1973, newsclipping; "Library Receives New Magazine," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 26, 1907, p. 4; "Library for the Blind -- Papers," folder, Seattle Public Library Archives (hereafter SPL Archives); "Library for the Blind -- Papers, 1949-1957," folder, SPL Archives; "Library for the Blind -- Papers, 1959-1966," folder, SPL Archives; "Washington Talking Book and Braille Library," brochure, 2001, SPL Archives;; "Braille," Britannica CD 2000 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2002); "Biographical Sketch of William Bell Wait," The New York Institute for Special Education Website (www.nyise.org).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You