Braille Monitor                                                   February 2010

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Featured Book from the Jacobus tenBroek Library

Essai sur L’Instruction des Aveugles by Sébastien Guillié
Paris: Institution for Blind Youth, 1817

by Ed Morman

From the Editor: With some regularity we plan to spotlight books in the tenBroek Library. Here is librarian Ed Morman's description of a recent acquisition:

A man reading Braille and a woman reading print are seated at a table in the Jacobus tenBroek Library with bookshelves filled with volumes behind them and a stack of Braille books on the table in front of them.Users of JAWS or other screen-reading programs should not be troubled if the title of this book sounds mangled. The book is in French and was printed by students at the Paris Institution for Blind Youth two years before Louis Braille arrived there. We recently purchased our copy at a good price after a vigilant Federationist identified it on the Web. At 192 years of age it is not quite the oldest book in our collection, but we will wait until the next issue of the Monitor to discuss the oldest one.

The translation of the full title of this book is Essay on the Instruction of the Blind, or Analytic Exposition of the Methods Used to Teach Them. Dr. Guillié, an ophthalmologist, was director-general and physician-in-chief at the Paris Institution. The school he directed had been training young blind people to set type and operate a printing press since it opened in the 1780s. Printing was a useful trade to know, but it is ironic that the youngsters at the Paris Institution were producing books that they could not read.

While this book is in ink-print, the Institution also published books in tactile alphabet letters. As anyone who has tried to read raised letters by touch can verify, it is a difficult and slow process. Louis Braille did learn to read raised alphabet letters, and, because he understood how cumbersome this was, he set out to create an alternative tactile system. We justly celebrate his having made true literacy possible for the blind.

Although Guillié regarded the blind as generally inferior to sighted people, this book is still worth reading. Among other things it provides an insight into the way the blind were regarded on the eve of Louis Braille’s revolution of the world of blindness. Chapters are on topics such as:

Sighted readers can also appreciate the illustrations, which show blind students engaged in a range of activities from playing the harp to operating a printing press. The book concludes with a few poems by students at the Institution. Several of them are quite clever and merit translation into English.

This book was published in English in 1819 (without the students’ poems) as An Essay on the Instruction and Amusements of the Blind. An 1894 reprint of the English edition is available online on Google Books.

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