Confessions of a Bibliofile

Photo of a child reading Braille

By David Hyde

I love to read and always have. I remember pestering my mother to read the Little Golden Books when I was about three, and trying hard to make sense of those dark marks on the page. Mom told me they were “letters,” but she couldn’t explain why they looked nothing like the ones which came in the mail. All of the marks looked alike to the three-year old me, so I must have thought some kind of magic was involved, or mom had a great imagination.

I started reading braille in the first grade. I had known my ABC’s since age 4, and was excited to learn that they also were bumps on a page. For a couple hours a day, we braille readers went into the Activity Room, just off of the main classroom. There we met Dick and Jane. Now as far as I know, Dick and Jane, along with their sister Sally, had the same last name as Tim (a teddy bear), Spot the dog, and Puff the cat, that is, none at all. They liked to do simple verbal things like look and see and boy did they run! Typical passages would read like this:

“Look Dick! Look Jane! See Spot run. See Puff run. See Spot run after Puff.”

Somehow, Tim never chased anyone. I learned braille contractions and punctuation (lots of exclamation points), parts of speech, how to make those dots, myself on a braille writer. We learned other things too. How the hands on a clock told you what time it was, how to be polite, and a lot of songs. But I always looked forward to reading. In later years when we read aloud to each other in class, I found that I could read fast in braille, while those students using large print read slowly enough that I could be a page ahead while they were finishing their paragraph.

My school had a library, and it contained braille books, along with those recorded on 33-1/3 rpm records and large print. It was one of my favorite places. I always had a book checked out, and when night would come, I could be found secretly reading under the covers. Of course I didn’t need a light, and would lie very still when staff came in to check that we were all asleep. That worked very well for me until they hired a blind house parent. It seems that he did the same thing so knew what to look for: he took my book away.

I still love braille books in libraries. When I visit the Jernigan Center in Baltimore, all of the walls in the main conference room are lined with bookshelves, and they are filled with braille books. I never get to sleep before 2:00 in the morning.

The way I read braille has changed over the years. I grew up before braille embossers were available to just anyone. All of my hard-copy books (the only way they existed) were either made by metal plates at the American Printing House for the Blind, or copied, by hand, by braille transcribers. If you needed more than one copy of these hand-copied braille books, you used a Thermoform machine. Each page was laid on a machine, and a piece of plastic paper laid on top of it. A metal top was pulled over to concentrate the heat from the machine, and when you pushed it back you had a copy of that page. Doing copies of braille books was a long, labor intensive process.

Oh how things have changed. If I want a braille book today, I just download it to my iPhone, and read it on a refreshable braille display. It is much easier than waiting for it to come through the mail from the library. Today, I tell blind and visually impaired children how it was in them old days. I remember seeing a braille copy of THE VEST POCKET DICTIONARY. It took seven volumes, and I could never figure out how to get even one of them into the pockets of my vest. Times, however, are changing again.

Right now, refreshable braille displays that work with iPhones and Android devices cost around $2,000.00. That is for one with eighteen cells, while the length of a line of braille in a book is forty. Beginning in October, the American Printing House for the Blind, and the National Federation of the Blind will be selling the Orbit twenty-cell display for $500.00. I have had a chance to look at it, and was impressed. Will it replace my beloved hard-cover braille books? Probably. But there still is that little part of me that will always remember the sound of fingers lightly brushing over paper in the night.

David Hyde is a Parent Liaison and the Professional Development Coordinator at WCBVI. You can contact him by email at david.hyde@wcbvi.k12.wi.us or by phone at (608) 758-6152 or toll free 1-866-284-1107 x6152.