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15-23 November: How We Read: Sensory history of books for the blind

An exhibition exploring the history of technology to help blind people read, from braille to audio books, is being shown at the Peltz Gallery for the UK’s first national festival of the humanities in November.

Dr Matthew Rubery, from the School of English and Drama at QMUL,and Birkbeck’s Dr Heather Tilley have been awarded funding to hold the exhibition ‘How We Read: A Sensory History of Books for Blind People’, during the Being Human festival, 15 – 23 November 2014.

Visitors will learn about the key people and ideas involved in the development of alternative ways of reading over the past two centuries, including the role blind people played in inventing these devices.

A variety of books will be on show in the form of embossed print, braille, talking book records, speech synthesizers, screen magnification systems, and optical character recognition reading machines.

Among the historic artifacts are embossed books by William Moon, creator of one of the first raised alphabets for blind people, and historic talking book recordings made in the 1930s for veterans blinded in the First World War. The EMI Group Archive Trust has also agreed to display the oldest surviving talking book shellac records from 1935.

Curator-led descriptive tours, hands-on activities, interactive workshops, and live performances will also encourage visitors to use sensory perception to try out alternative ways of reading with their eyes, ears,and fingers.

Dr Rubery, who is an expert on the history of the book, said: “Understanding the role played by braille, talking books, and alternative reading formats in Britain since the 1800s will increase awareness of the challenges faced by disabled people to access literature.

“Assistive reading technology has dramatically improving the wellbeing and quality of life for hundreds of thousands of blind and visually impaired readers in Britain.

“Significantly, many of these devices have never been exhibited before, making this a unique opportunity for visitors to explore this significant but largely neglected aspect of the nation’s literacy heritage.”

‘How We Read’ will be part of a national programme of festival activities, demonstrating the role of the humanities in the cultural, intellectual, political and social life of the UK.

Currently in its first year, Being Human is led by the School of Advanced Study, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy, with the participation of arts and cultural organisations and universities across the UK.

Project partners:


Birkbeck, School of Arts
43 Gordon Square
London WC1H 0PD

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