- Reading the Past to Design Accessible Futures: Blindness and Education from Nineteenth-Century Tactile Books to Twenty-First-Century 3-D Printing
For many of us, reading has become such an automatic process that we forget how it happens. At Touch This Page! Making Sense of the Ways We Read, a popup-style historical exhibit that debuted in four identical versions in libraries and universities in the Boston area, visitors were challenged to question these and other assumptions about reading and to consider what sensations and objects make the process possible. In addition to reflecting on their own reading practices, visitors engaged multiple senses, including touch, to explore the history of a specific reading technology: tactile printing developed in the nineteenth-century United States. In the 1830s, Perkins School for the Blind, the first school for blind students in the United States, began to print tactile books with raised alphabet letters, diagrams, and maps. 1Visitors to Touch This Pagecould explore these tactile ways of reading by feeling the surfaces of six 3-D-printed plastic versions of pieces of the original books, which are housed and maintained at the Perkins archives in Watertown, Massachusetts.
A multidisciplinary collaboration created the plastic facsimiles of these nineteenth-century tactile prints for public interaction in the exhibit locations. Exhibit co-directors Sari Altschuler (assistant professor of English and associate director of the Northeastern Humanities Center at Northeastern University) [End Page 1111]and David Weimer (librarian for Cartographic Collections and Learning at the Harvard Map Collection at Harvard University) coordinated the project. They also conducted the research and narrative analysis for the exhibit text that contextualized the 3-D-printed book pieces. Visitors could read about the exhibit at all the locations in multiple formats, chosen with disability access in mind, by feeling braille panels, by looking at printed text, or by listening to the material in audio form online. To reproduce the tactile qualities of the books for Touch This Page, Altschuler and Weimer collaborated with a team of undergraduate designers led by Nicolas Fong at Northeastern University and supervised by Waleed Meleis (associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern). The students worked with the input of staff at Perkins, including Kim Charlson, executive director of the library, to design, print, and refine the 3-D prints.
Touch This Pageused its public history platform to apply material studies methodologies to the study of disability in history. Printing in three dimensions communicated tactile properties of the archival objects to visitors that other processes of copying and dissemination, such as photography, would have failed to transmit. About five years ago, nonindustrial 3-D printing began to attract substantial media and popular attention. That charisma has powered the widespread installation of inexpensive 3-D printers in educational spaces such as schools, libraries, and museums. By posting the 3-D-scanned files for the tactile book facsimiles on the exhibit website for anyone to download and print, Touch This Pagehas made also possible a potentially wide-ranging afterlife for the exhibit and others like it.
Touch This Pageexplicitly linked this exercise in 3-D printing, as well as the history covered in the exhibit, to disability politics. The team chose a tactile form of reproduction in large part because access for blind visitors, the primary group for which the original books were printed in the nineteenth century, was a top priority. 2Both the exhibit and companion symposium, "Touch This Page! A Symposium on Access, Ability, and the Archive," invited scholars, designers, librarians, archivists, educators, and students to reflect on and to further experiment with design informed by the project's central questions. How might engaging with the material qualities of objects in historical context enrich studies of politics, citizenship...