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New Lessons in Braille History

The NLS Music Section is honored to hold the world’s largest collection of braille music. Many people are familiar with Louis Braille (1809-52) as inventor of the literary braille code, but relatively few know that, being a musician, Braille intended his system of raised-point writing to be used for musical notation as well. Indeed, the 1829 publication in which he explained his system includes a description of music notation using raised dots. When it comes to Louis Braille’s development of his six-dot system, however, recent research has shed new light on certain aspects of the familiar narrative which has been by and large accepted for more than 60 years and which I myself learned.

Recently Judy Dixon, my colleague here at NLS and current President of the International Council on English Braille (ICEB), drew attention to this new research, which was done by Philippa Campsie, an independent scholar and adjunct professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. Campsie published her research in the article “Charles Barbier: A Hidden Story,” which appeared in Disability Studies Quarterly’s spring 2021 issue. In an article for the American Council of the Blind’s ACB E-Forum titled “Have We Had It Wrong All These Years?,” Dixon wrote, “For those of us who have closely studied the history of braille, these revelations are shocking.” Today I’d like to summarize and share Philippa Campsie’s research with you here on the NLS Music Notes Blog, for our understanding of history is constantly evolving, and it appears that we can learn some new lessons in the history of braille.

For her research, Campsie analyzed primary source documents in the archives of the Association Valentin Haüy, the Institut National de Jeunes Aveugles (INJA), and the Musée Louis Braille, among other institutions, in order to reexamine events associated with the inception of the braille code. It is often recounted that Charles Barbier (1767-1841) developed a twelve-dot system of “night writing” for use in military operations, which he then demonstrated to students at the Institut Royal des Jeunes Aveugles (IRJA), including Louis Braille himself, who adapted it into a reading and writing system for people with visual impairments. Campsie identified the likely origins of this narrative in a biographical essay written in 1859 by Dr. Alexandre-René Pignier, director of IRJA in the 1820s and 1830s, and a 1952 book by Paul Henri titled La Vie et l’Oeuvre de Louis Braille.

According to Campsie’s research, primary source evidence does not support several aspects of the traditional narrative. First, although Charles Barbier had a career in the French military for about 7 years (1785-1792), he did not originally develop his system as covert “night writing” intended for the military, but rather he aspired to design alternative reading and writing systems for people who were illiterate due to a variety of circumstances, including blindness. In an 1815 publication in which he proposed a system of raised-point writing, he explicitly stated that he believed those who would derive the greatest benefit from such a system were people who were blind or partially sighted.

Next, many published resources have reported that the teen-aged Louis Braille met Charles Barbier at IRJA, but this appears to be based on Pignier’s faulty account. Campsie found no evidence to support that such an early meeting took place, nor that Barbier visited IRJA to demonstrate his system. What did happen, according to primary sources in Campsie’s study, is that in 1821 Barbier wrote to Dr. Pignier, who had recently become director of IRJA, to promote his twelve-dot system of raised-point writing. Pignier decided to give the system a trial at IRJA, and it was well received by both administrators and students, who were now able to take notes and re-read them, which they had not been able to do with the raised-type cursive that the school had taught them to read. Also, Barbier donated many sets of equipment which he had invented (akin to a slate and stylus) so that the students could produce this new point writing.

Louis Braille began his studies at IRJA in 1819 and so would have learned Barbier’s system when it was introduced to the school in 1821. However, according to Campsie’s review of primary source documents, Barbier and Braille did not get to know one another until 1833, which is when Barbier apparently first learned of Louis Braille’s 1829 publication proposing a six-dot system of raised-point writing for words and music. In 1833, Barbier wrote to Dr. Pignier to request a copy of Braille’s method and in that letter indicated that he did not know who Louis Braille was, which again undermines the familiar narrative of a meeting between Barbier and Braille in the 1820s. After Barbier read Braille’s publication in 1833, the two began corresponding and subsequently met in person later that year.

From her research, Campsie concludes that Charles Barbier appears to be the first person to propose a coded writing system for people who are blind or partially sighted (as opposed to raised type in the shape of the conventional alphabet). Barbier can also be credited with providing the first tools for creating raised-point writing. But, as we know, Louis Braille made numerous innovations on Barbier’s system that are of crucial importance and ultimately led to braille’s worldwide adoption. And, of course, Louis Braille’s code extended to encompass musical notation, which was immensely important to him as an organist, pianist, cellist, and teacher of music.

Future blog posts will continue to examine various facets of the fascinating history of braille music. In the meantime, you can learn more about braille history from the following books available from the NLS collection:

Audio

Braille into the Next Millennium (DB 50969). Edited by Judy Dixon. Essays examining the history and future of braille include such topics as the development of the literary, Nemeth, and music codes; braille production; legal issues; library service; and literacy and computer access concerns. With a foreword by Frank Kurt Cylke and a preface by Kenneth Jernigan.

Journey through Braille Music (DBM04274). Produced by the United Kingdom Association for Accessible Formats. Podcast series. Episode 1: History and background of braille music — Episode 2: Music for single line instruments — Episode 3: Vocal music — Episode 4: Keyboard music — Episode 5: Advanced topics — Episode 6: Series summary and available resources.

Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius by Michael C. Mellor (DB 63350)

Triumph over Darkness: The Life of Louis Braille by Lennard Bickel (DB 68015)

Braille

Braille into the Next Millennium (BR 13188). Edited by Judy Dixon. Essays examining the history and future of braille include such topics as the development of the literary, Nemeth, and music codes; braille production; legal issues; library service; and literacy and computer access concerns. With a foreword by Frank Kurt Cylke and a preface by Kenneth Jernigan.

Embossed Music: Its History, Present Status, and Future by Lewis W. Rodenberg (BRM30323). Mostly consists of a speech presented at the convention of the American Association of Workers for the Blind at Janesville, Wisconsin in 1923. Includes appendix of agencies and persons active in braille music at the time.

Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius by Michael C. Mellor (BR 16790)

“Music Braille” by Harvey Horatio Miller (BRM35795). Excerpt from Braille into the Next Millennium (BR 13188).

Triumph over Darkness: The Life of Louis Braille by Lennard Bickel (BR 17820)

If you’d like to learn more about the NLS Music Section and how you can borrow braille music, large-print music, audio music lessons, and music appreciation talking books, please visit our website, e-mail us at [email protected], or call us at 800-424-8567 extension 2.

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