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Braille, and Haüy, and Howe, Oh My!

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The Music Section at the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has the largest collection of braille music in the world, with music from numerous national and international braille producers. One of the best represented publishers in the music collection is Howe Press, a braille publisher that was the in-house braille producer for the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Although Howe Press is no longer publishing, the proliferation of braille music is deeply indebted to it, and the number of scores in our collection is a testament to this.

So, how (and why) did Howe Press produce so much braille music?

First, we must start with the development of the braille music code.

Most people know that Louis Braille invented the literary braille code—but many aren’t aware he invented a braille music code as well. He made the code usable to any musician and instrument and, in 1829, published the first book about his system entitled Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them. While this book discusses letters, words, and other language-related characters, it also discusses music.

At Valentin Haüy’s Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris (now the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles or National Institute for Blind Youth), students were offered organ lessons, and many achieved fame as accomplished organists. Like his teacher and predecessor Haüy, Louis Braille emphasized music instruction, as he himself was both an accomplished cellist and organist.

A few years later in 1832, inspired after visiting Haüy’s institute in Paris, Samuel G. Howe (who, by the way, could have an entire blog post written about him) founded the Perkins Institution (later the Perkins School for the Blind) in Watertown, Massachusetts. In 1835, Howe started the Perkins Printing Department, which later became Howe Press. Howe, like Haüy and Braille before him, considered music as important to students’ education as other intellectual inquiries, even requiring students to dedicate 4 hours every day to vocal and instrumental music.

By the late 19th century, the braille music library at Perkins was quite large, much of it coming from Perkins’ own Howe Press. There, students were using braille music notation even before utilizing literary braille.

What happened to all of this music? Much of it ended up here, at NLS! Look for a post in the future that highlights some of the material from this collection!

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