Birkbeck Forum for C19th Studies, ‘Reading Blindness in the 19th and early 20th Century Archive’

Reading Blindness in the Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth-Century Archive: Roundtable with Hannah Thompson (RHUL), Heather Tilley (Birkbeck), and Matthew Rubery (QMUL), Tuesday 8 October 2013.

The Birkbeck Forum for Nineteenth-Century Studies opened this year with a special roundtable event exploring the ways in which new technologies created new communities of blind and partially-sighted readers in nineteenth and early-twentieth century France and Britain. Through short position papers, panelists explored questions of representation and inclusion, considering how extensively blind peoples’ changing experience of reading practices and materials in this period are documented in the archive. The panel also addressed the issue of accessibility, examining how the format of material relating to the history of blindness and literature might perpetuate a politics of exclusion for contemporary partially-sighted readers and researchers.

Audio of each panelist’s presentation is available at this link:…

Hannah Thompson (RHUL): ‘Blindness, Representation, and Accessibility: a French Perspective’This paper discusses what the holdings of the bibliothèque patrimoniale Valentine Hauy and the musée Valentin Hauy in Paris tell us about nineteenth-century representations of blindness and the choices made about the subject-matter of embossed literature. Whilst the embossed books produced in Paris are mostly educational, instructional or scientific in nature, the print writings about the blind collected by Hauy are more religious or sentimental. Dr Thompson will use an overview of her work with these archives to explore questions of accessibility as well as addressing the reasons behind the differences between books produced for the blind and books produced for the sighted.

Dr Hannah Thompson is Senior Lecturer in French at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the author of the popular blog Blind Spot and is currently writing a book on representation of blindness in French literature.

Heather Tilley (Birkbeck): ‘Who is Harriet Curry? Locating the First Communities of Finger Readers in the Nineteenth Century’Inscribed in ink at the front of the Royal National Institute for Blind People’s copy of an 1837 edition of St John’s Gospel is the name ‘Harriet Curry.’ At the back, a further handwritten note details the circumstances of the presentation of this bible, embossed in Lucas type, to Harriet Curry. But who was Harriet Curry? How did she feel about the gift of this book; how easy was it for her to read Lucas’s newly invented embossed system, based on shorthand symbols; and what pleasure or instruction did she gain from it? In this short paper, I use Harriet Curry’s bible as a prompt to explore the difficulties of locating individual readers and reader responses from the archival record of the first communities of tactile readers in the nineteenth century.

Dr Heather Tilley is a British Academy postdoctoral fellow in the Department of English and Humanities, Birkbeck. She is curator of the exhibition Touching the Book: Embossed Literature for Blind People in the Nineteenth Century and has recently finished the manuscript of her book Blindness and Writing: Wordsworth to Gissing.

Matthew Rubery (QMUL): ‘Talking Books and Speechless Readers’Britain’s Talking Book Library opened on August 1, 1935. The service was established to provide gramophone recordings of printed books to blinded veterans of the First World War and other civilians with visual disabilities. Advocacy groups hailed the arrival of the talking books as the most important development for blind readers since the invention of braille. Drawing on archival material held by the Royal National Institute for Blind People and Blind Veterans UK, this presentation documents the talking book’s impact on the first generation of readers to listen to recorded books in the 1930s and 1940s.

Dr Matthew Rubery is Reader in Nineteenth-Century Literature at Queen Mary, University of London. Author of The Novelty of Newspapers: Victorian Fiction after the Invention of the News (Oxford, 2009), he is currently completing a monograph titled The Untold Story of the Talking Book, a history of recorded literature since Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877.

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