Touching the Book: Embossed Literature for Blind People in the Nineteenth Century


Where: Peltz Gallery, Ground Floor, School of Arts, Birkbeck, London WC1H 0PD

When: 18 July – 16 September, Monday-Friday 9-8pm.

17 September – 30 October, Monday – Saturday, 9-8pm

This free exhibition explores the history of literacy for blind and visually impaired people in nineteenth-century Britain and Europe through the development of embossed literature. It introduces visitors to the variety of embossed writing systems that blind people were taught prior to the widespread adoption of braille at the end of the nineteenth century. There was fierce debate in this period between educators who favoured a system based on the Roman alphabet that could be read still by sight and those who advocated for an arbitrary system – such as braille – more suited to finger reading.

Touching the book: Embossed literature for Blind People brings together a rich array of material, including important examples of early classbooks, spiritual guides, the first specially-commissioned embossed Bibles, writing devices, pamphlets and visual images. It details how early embossing attempts were motivated by religious desire to enable blind people to read the word of God directly through touch. This fuelled investment in embossing processes which in turn improved the quality and durability of embossed books.

Most significantly however, the development of finger-reading practices helped to create new communities of literate blind and visually-impaired people who began advocating for reading and writing systems best suited to the needs of blind people. The exhibition highlights individuals in the nineteenth-century blind community who both raised the profile of and were instrumental in improving literacy for blind and visually-impaired people, including Laura Bridgman, William Moon, G.A. Hughes, Louis Braille and Thomas Rhodes Armitage.

Here on this website you can find out visitor information (how to get to the exhibition, opening hours, facilities, tours), as well as learn more about the exhibition objects. There is also a forum for people to share knowledge and experience relating to the exhibition’s themes of visual disability and literacy, and we very much welcome contribution and comment.


5 thoughts on “Touching the Book: Embossed Literature for Blind People in the Nineteenth Century

  1. Gary North

    Do you intend to make a YouTube video of some of the books and tools? This will be a unique opportunity. Better a smartphone tour than no tour at all.

    Is there a bibliography of these books?

    1. uble293

      Dear Gary

      Many thanks for your message. There are no plans to make a YouTube video at present but I will explore whether it’s possible to do so. I have had a few requests for a bibliography and will also be adding this to the site in the coming weeks.

      Thanks again, Heather

  2. Nancy Hansen

    I teach graduate level disability history at the University of Manitoba in Canada. Are there any materials that I can purchase for teaching purposes?

  3. Terry McIntosh

    Do you have any English grammar workbooks in braille available? Our ESL program has an international blind student who needs more practice with English grammar.

    1. nichole

      In a way, grade 2 braille has it’s own grammar and especially spelling. Grammar is one subject that could be handled by a specialized audio textbook ( one that notes when terms are in bold for instance. People sometimes think that braille will deal with language blocks but just because I read braille doesn’t mean that if someone embossed some German text in the English braille code i could read it


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *