Breadth of Activities of the CNIB Library

Chief CNIB Librarian Sherman Swift was justly proud of his institution.  In a 1940 letter he wrote that "the only national library in Canada is that in whose office these paragraphs are written.  It loans books to blind people throughout British North America.  It has works on every conceivable topic and in a number of languages - English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Esperanto, Welsh, Latin, Greek.  Its supplies are drawn upon, not only by blind people in their own homes and for their own pleasure, but also by an increasing number of sightless students in many Canadian high schools and universities.”

Annual reports from its early days in the 1920s offer snapshots of a busy, well-used national library, serving readers with a variety of abilities with different types of embossed books (braille, New York Point, and Moon).  The Library also loaned music, and sold writing material such as "Braille and New York Point writing-slates, Braille writing-paper, grooved-cards for pencil-writing, playing-cards with embossed characters, dominoes, checkers, and puzzles especially devised for the use of the blind, all of which articles will be sold to the blind at cost.”

The books of the Gospel consume seventeen embossed discs, St. Matthew and St. Luke using five each, St. John four and St. Mark three
— CNIB Library

Talking books on 33 1/3 rpm records came on the scene in the mid 1930s and by November 1935 the CNIB Library had 38 titles to loan, including fiction, poetry, drama, and religious literature.  Each title could take up several records, depending on length.  As a CNIB-written article from 1935 described, “If a blind reader desires to follow the adventures of Wilkie Collins’s 'Woman in White' to its long-delayed, but blissful conclusion, he must listen to twenty-six records… The books of the Gospel consume seventeen embossed discs, St. Matthew and St. Luke using five each, St. John four and St. Mark three.” The Library’s first talking books included John Masefield’s “Birds at Dawning,” (11 records) and James Hilton’s "Lost Horizon" (12 records).  Authors including Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Edna Ferber and Somerset Maugham narrated their own books for blind readers. In 1937 the 21-year-old Gregory Peck auditioned as a narrator at the American Foundation for the Blind. A report said "Damn nice fellow. Pretty good reader. Might try out when we get some books."

By 1940, Swift could write that the Library’s shelves carried “close to 22,000 volumes in embossed type as well as many thousands of records of the recently developed talking book.”  He also noted that the Library held several thousand pieces which it loaned “to blind musicians throughout the Dominion.  These pieces are, generally speaking, catalogued and graded according to the requirements of the Toronto Conservatory of Music." In 1939 a research committee at CNIB considered the needs of Canadian musicians and piano tuners who were blind.  This led to the establishment of a music department within the Library.


The publishing department produced and distributed braille volumes and materials in English.  This included the “Braille Courier” a monthly magazine on current events, which, by 1939 had 500 subscribers, and was also sent to international libraries.  Other publications included various “supplements” such as “Housewife,” “Hither and Yon,” “Books Received,” “Braille Catalogue,” “Music Catalogue,” and “Christmas Carols.”

Some materials were produced for schools for the blind.  In 1927, CNIB Managing Director E.A. Baker wrote to the Halifax School for the Blind about knitting books in braille that would include up-to-date styles that would appeal “to the higher class trade” but would not be “subject to machine competition.”  If the HSFB wanted more copies of these, he wrote, "I think it might be advisable for us to stereotype the material on metal sheets and thus be in a position to run off as many copies of each as you might require."

A shortcoming in the publishing area was the production of embossed text books at short notice, due to, as Swift noted in 1939, a lack of "a properly trained corps of volunteer Braille copyists to produce texts by hand. I have no doubt that such a body of transcribers will eventually be formed and will make straight the path of our blind scholars."  His prediction came to pass and is described in the exhibit section "Within Living Memory".