On Tuesday 16th April, a few trainees and myself descended on Judd Street to visit Robert, the librarian at the RNIB Research Library. Upon entering the building I was struck by the shop, full of a diverse range of things designed to enrich the lives of blind or partially sighted people. There were large print Scrabble boards in Braille, telephones, vibrating watches, dice, and audible footballs amongst many other things. The library leads off of this shop: when entering please beware of the wall of Sooty and Sweep’s staring back at you; they can give quite a fright. However, you shouldn’t be frightened as it is just part of the large assortment of Sooty and Sweep collection boxes that the RNIB has. The RNIB has famously used the Sooty and Sweep characters, though unfortunately they have lost or misplaced the original documented agreement to use the image.
The RNIB is the largest library in the UK for people with sight loss and offers a wide choice of fiction and non-fiction books in audio, Braille and giant print for adults and children. As well as providing this vital service it also acts as a veritable treasure trove for researchers. One member of staff mainly runs the library, but two others have recently been recruited. The computers in the library have technological aspects, which I am certainly not used to in the library where I work – the computers can tailor to the needs of the individual user and can be customized with varying conditions. For example, the JAWS screen software can increase the size of the text seen on the screen as well as change the colour of a document to make it more accessible.
The library offers a wealth of historical documents available for research; this ranges from official documentation, annual reports, journals and embossed manuscripts, as well as objects and photographs. The library houses a unique and valuable collection of historically important material relating to the history of blind people and the organizations working with them, including RNIB and many local societies and care homes; this means that the library is also an important resource for people researching family history.
The library is free to join and use, except, that is, for the brilliant Talking Book Service, which is produced by RNIB Talking Book Studios in a professional audio facility based in Camden, London. They produce audio books and magazines for both RNIB services as well as commercially. Library users can borrow six books at a time, and the loan period is three months, with postage free. The Talking Book Service includes unlimited access to over 20,000 audio books and the loan of a DAISY player. Unlike audio books on normal CDs, readers can use the DAISY technology to skip to a new chapter, or the next paragraph, and insert a bookmark. Books are delivered and returned free of charge under the Articles for the Blind scheme. And these can even be sent to a different address, in addition to your home address (this can even be a holiday address).
In the archive in the cellar of the building we saw a lot of photos and raised Braille maps. One photo depicted women hand stitching Braille books together, which was particularly enlightening. We also came across an 1838 New Testament in Braille, another highlight. In the 19th Century the only books that were produced for blind or partially sighted people were largely religious texts. The Research Library and Archive have recently been brought together to make their full potential available, which has meant that this site has acquired a lot of new material previously held at Peterborough. Walking around the archive, the amount of work that needs to be done is clearly visible. There are shelves and shelves of boxes of un-catalogued objects; additionally the library management system is undergoing a transition to an archival-based system. It seems that Robert is keen to take on the challenge, though, and he certainly won’t get bored: there are plenty of interesting things to be distracted by!